If you were alive on November 22, 1963 — and over, say, 5 years old — you understand how dramatically, and traumatically, America shifted that day.
If you weren’t, there is no way you can comprehend it.
The murder of President Kennedy was a horrific, galvanizing moment in time. It happened 50 years ago today, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in 5th grade. Since September my friends and I had walked to and from school. We gathered on High Point Road, cut through the Staples High School athletic fields and parking lot, sauntered down North Avenue, walked across open farmland, and arrived at Burr Farms Elementary. We were like the “Stand By Me” boys: talking about kid stuff, reveling in our independence, figuring out each other and the world in a world that would soon mightily change.
Minutes before school ended that beautiful Friday, the teacher from next door burst into our room. “Kennedy got killed!” she yelled. A girl broke into spontaneous applause. Her father was a leading Republican in town.
Our teacher slapped her face.
Usually, our teacher wished us a happy weekend. That day the bell rang, and we just left. No one knew how to interpret her reaction. We’d never seen a teacher hit a student before.
Then again, we’d never heard of our president being murdered.
As my friends and I gathered for our ritual walk home, we suddenly had Something Big to talk about. For the first time in our lives, we discussed news. We had no details, but already we sensed that the world we knew would never be the same.
That vague feeling was confirmed the moment we walked down the exit road, into the Staples parking lot. School had been out for an hour, but clots of students huddled around cars, listening to radios. Girls sobbed — boys, too. Their arms were wrapped around each other, literally clinging together for support. I’d never seen one teenager cry. Now there were dozens.
Walter Cronkite on CBS, announcing the death of President Kennedy.
At home, I turned on the television. Black-and-white images mirrored the scene at Staples a few minutes earlier. Newscasters struggled to contain their emotions; men and women interviewed in the street could not.
The president was dead. Now it was true. I saw it on TV.
My best friend, Glenn, slept over that night. The television was on constantly. The longer I watched, the more devastated I became.
John F. Kennedy was the first president I knew. My father had taken me to a campaign rally in Bridgeport 3 years earlier. I could not articulate it then, but I admired his energy, was inspired by his youthfulness, and vowed to grow up and (like him) make a difference.
Now he was dead.
Bill Mauldin captured the grief of a nation.
Saturday was rainy and blustery. I watched more TV. Like most Americans, I was obsessed by this unfolding tragedy. Like them too I had no idea that the impact of that weekend would remain, seared in my brain and heart, 5 decades later.
Sunday was the first day I cried. The raw emotions of all the adults around — in the streets of Westport, and on the television screen — finally overwhelmed me. I cried for the dead president, my fallen hero; for his widow and children; for everyone else who looked so sad and vulnerable.
Then — right after noon — Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Once again I sat transfixed by the TV. I was stunned, and scared.
Monday was a brilliant fall day. President Kennedy was laid to rest under a crisp, cloudless sky. The unforgettably moving ceremony was watched by virtually everyone in the world with access to a television.
To my everlasting regret, I did not see it live. Glenn said we could not sit inside on a day off from school. Rather than risk being called a nerd (or whatever word we used in 1963), I chose playing touch football at Staples over watching history. I was in 5th grade. What did I know?
The coffin, at Arlington National Cemetery.
The next day we went back to school. The Staples parking lot looked exactly as it had before that fateful Friday. Our teacher never said a word about slapping the girl who cheered President Kennedy’s assassination.
Thanksgiving arrived on schedule 2 days later. At our dinner — like every other table in America — the adults tried to steer the conversation away from the awful events that had consumed us for nearly a week.
In the days and months to come — as the country slowly, painfully, pulled itself out of its collective, overwhelming grief — I devoured everything about President Kennedy I could find. I saved Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. I ordered the Warren Commission report. Like so many others I still have it all, somewhere.
In the years that followed my admiration for the young, slain president grew, then ebbed. But it never died. He remained my political hero: the first president I ever knew, cared about, was mesmerized by, and mourned.
When President Kennedy was killed, journalist Mary McGrory said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who worked for JFK — replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”
Fifty years ago this morning, I was a young 5th grader without a care in the world.
Walking home that afternoon, I could never not care again.
(CBS.com will stream the original news broadcasts minute-by-minute in real time, just as they were originally delivered, beginning at 1:40 p.m. this afternoon. For more information, click here.)