“What is the first major news story you remember living through as a child?”
It seems incredibly ironic to be thinking about this particular question this week given that we may be living through one of the most momentous events of our time even as I write this. Like all of us, I have lived through my share of major events. Some have had a tremendous impact on our world. None, however, has been as transformational as the onset of the coronavirus will likely be. For my grandchildren this will be tory, in the years ahead.
But today I’m supposed to focus on what I experienced in my childhood. And for me, and likely for most of my generation, there is only one answer — the assassination of President John Kennedy. That act of political violence gripped our nation and touched all in one way or another. But I have to add that the FIRST major news story that intruded on my consciousness was the Cuban Missile Crisis so I’ll give a moment of time to that one as well.
That crisis isn’t on a par with President Kennedy’s murder but in a historical context it was 13 days in October of 1962 that took us to the brink of war. I didn’t really know that at the time, but I do recall one Sunday night. We were watching the tv — CBS — and waiting for the Ed Sullivan show to begin. There was a special news bulletin…interrupting whatever was on.
In those days, it seems to me, a story had to be really momentous to break into network programming. But the missile crisis fit that bill. I don’t recall the exact content of the report — I think it may have been about Khrushchev accepting the terms for ending the crisis and agreeing to pull the Russian missiles from Cuba. As I said, the details are foggy but what registered for me was that something big… really big… was happening.
I realized that they were talking about the risk of war. Perhaps a risk narrowly averted by then but that war was real and that it could have happened. I heard the broadcaster talking of missiles and blockades and it all sounded very serious and more than a little frightening. This was, after all, the era where neighbors had fallout shelters in their basements or backyards and where there were weekly tests of warning sirens (1 PM every Wednesday) whose eery wail always was a bit frightening.
There were drills at school for the kids and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was one that even touched the consciousness of otherwise politically unaware nine-year-old kids.
We emerged from the crisis into calmer days, at least for a while. And I guess I’m glad that I didn’t fully appreciate just how close we came to war and the type of holocaust we feared. And President Kennedy and his advisors seemed to have the answers. It was all good…until it wasn’t.
Only a bit more than year later, on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 PM central time. Most of my generation and those older than us can tell you where they were. I had returned to my fifth grade classroom after lunch. I lived close enough that I could walk home for lunch and I did that day. It was a cloudy November day as I returned to our parish school — Nativity. Sister Shawn was my teacher.
I remember someone wheeling into the classroom the big TVs mounted on tall stands on which we usually watched our Spanish lessons on public television with Domigal (that was the instructor’s name — it’s amazing the funny things we recall half a century later). Sister Shawn turned on the TV…there must have been instructions from the principal…. but I don’t recall anything really except the TV’s sudden appearance.
It was, of course, the same story on every channel. The President had been shot. Assassinated.
The shock in the voices of the newscasters. The disbelief, the sorrow, the fear…all were palpable. It was numbing. Once again, you knew that something really big had happened. But it was too big to absorb. And we had never experienced something like this before. How were we supposed to feel?
Maybe the fact that he was the first (and only) Catholic President, added to the sense of loss for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet who led our school. All I know is that we were all devastated…at sea. We were dismissed early and made our way home.
Although a year had passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis I had not gained any significant degree of political awareness. So I wasn’t focused on the many issues of concern about transition and governance and the implications for our nation’s future — though there were many.
I was just lost. I remember feeling that this wasn’t right. That the world wasn’t right and it didn’t feel like things would be right again any time soon.
I remember spending a lot of time sitting on the bed in my parents’ room. They had a small black and white tv in there and somehow it seems fitting in retrospect to remember those images in black and white. I don’t remember details so much as images. The clip of the attack. Of Vice President Johnson taking the oath. Of Jackie Kennedy and the children.
I remember as well the caisson on which his flag draped casked was drawn by six gray horses and one, riderless, black horse as they made their way to the Capitol where he would lay in state. And I recall the endless lines of people waiting, silently, to pay their respects and the hushed voices of the commentators. And of course the funeral and the salute of little John at his father’s graveside.
Some of those memories I am sure have been reinforced by video clips seen again and again over the years. But I don’t need the clips to remember how I felt. I was just a kid but there was a feeling in our nation in those years in which he led us. We were reaching for the stars. We were transforming as a nation. It was a time of excitement and hope and for aspiration. It was Camelot.
I might not have understood it all, but I felt it. And President Kennedy was “our” president. And he was gone.
So this is the first major news story that I remember. There were more that would come in the years ahead. Stories about the struggles for racial equality. The riots, the demand for justice. And there were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. And then there was the Apollo program and man’s first steps on the moon. All momentous in their own way. All big things that were happening in our world.
And, although the world seemed duller and sadder, after JFK’s death, we went on. And, after the riots and discord, we went on. And after the deaths MLK and RFK we went on. And, after the global pandemic of COVID-19 has come and gone, we’ll go on.
These times of loss, of change, and of transition, are challenging and often frightening — but these are also the moments when we have the chance to learn, to grow. These are the times when we must make the right choices, do the right thing, and set the right example.
For the sake of my grandchildren, and the kids for whom this is THEIR first time when something “really big is happening,” I hope we act with wise deliberation and care for their future.