I remember where I was then.
It was Algebra class, with Mr. O’Neill, in Lawrence High School.
Classes ended at 2:45 pm, and the school buses were already lined up in a perimeter around the school to take us home. But the buzzer would not ring that day.
Instead, the principal’s voice came over the P.A. system, broadcasting into every classroom at about 2:25 pm. The President of the United States had been assassinated, and we were all to proceed to our buses and homes at once. All afternoon activities at the school had been cancelled.
End of day school bus rides were typically giddy journeys, planning softball games on Branch Boulevard. Not that day. I still remember the ride home even today, a stunned silence gripping the students of all classes. None of us fully understood the depth and dimension of what happened. We were transfixed only by a surreal sadness.
Years later, we would learn from our teachers that the hurried rush home was in part due to the possible fear that the United States may have been under a Communist attack, and the president’s murder was a foreboding of a war that might be next.
In 1963, news came in black and white via news bulletins, teletypes, Western Union, and Walter Cronkite- once a day, at 6:30 pm on CBS. There was no CNN or Fox.
My home was on the south shore of Long Island, New York, in the small town of North Woodmere. Our family had one large 19-inch television set in the den to share.
If you wanted to change the dial, you went to the set, and carefully, ‘slowly’- dad would warn- move the rotary dial from station to station. No picture-in-picture, save, or record buttons existed. After all, Steve Jobs was only 8 years old.
We would spend that entire weekend transfixed at those TV screens, images of the dead president’s funeral seared forever into our memories. It was my mom’s 42nd birthday, but there was no celebration in my home or any others in America.
Sometimes now, 50 years later, I am surprised about how much I still remember about that weekend. Of course, each anniversary and decade drives home the memory again and again, from John-John’s salute to the lighting of the Eternal Flame.
The bucking, rider-less horse is what I remember the most about the somber funeral procession. His name was Black Jack, and he is one of only two horses in the United States to be buried with full military honors.
Before that, World War II veterans remembered the infamy of December 7, 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. I understand most of today’s Americans were born after JFK’s passing. Today, we all share the shock and tragedy of September 11, 2001, instead.
JFK once said that the price of freedom “again and again is that each generation loses some of its best young men in defense thereof.” At 46 years old, on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, he became one of them.
Thousands of young Americans would also die in Vietnam in that same decade. So too would the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, both victims of an assassin’s deadly bullets.
For those of us in our 60’s, of the 60’s, it would be a turbulent decade of growth and change. We would later be marching in Washington and singing at Woodstock, asking for peace and love in a world that was giving us war and hate.
Fifty years have passed, and new generations have dawned. The bullets of a false revenge have taken too many lives too many times over too many years, from civil rights workers in the 1960’s to John Lennon in 1980. The LGBT community has had its share of Harvey Milks. Violence has no virtues. In America, it just seems to have a repeat switch.
Today’s students enter schools through metal detectors, all of us are screened at airports, and intelligence agencies secretly monitor your phone calls. It is not the world we intended. We go to a mall hoping to buy sneakers, and joke if we get home without a crazed teenager armed with an AK 47 going postal on us. In 2013, we hear of Columbine, Aurora, or Sandy Hook instead of JFK, RFK, and Dr. King.
Somewhere else in America today, kids are also riding home on a school bus, shaken by recurring tragedies on their own campuses, which mar their past and will forever mark their tomorrows. Shocked by some stark new episode of transcending violence, they endure the same uncertain fears each of us felt riding home in school buses 50 years ago this week.
May these young men and women emerge from the pain, so we can light the torch for a new generation: a flame for the equality and peace JFK sought to ignite a half century ago. It is a flame that will burn in my generation’s hearts forever.