ENID, Okla. —
It was supposed to be a good day.
How could it be otherwise? It was Friday, for one thing, with the weekend and all its delicious possibilities looming.
Besides, the next week was Thanksgiving, bringing with it a couple of extra days off, not to mention turkey, pie and football, for crying out loud.
On top of that it was movie day at school. There were free cartoons on tap after school in the gym, a treat made all the sweeter by a box of Milk Duds.
School was, well, school. The boy was a rather pedestrian student, far more interested in the world outside the classroom walls and the worlds he created for himself inside his mind.
After lunch it was time for gym class. On the agenda that day was dodge ball, which he enjoyed, but which always troubled him because of the threat to his oft-broken eyeglasses.
Members of the class marched single file, more or less, from their room to the gym, the assemblage alive with the anticipation of close-order combat with rubber balls.
The teacher was preparing to hand out the balls and begin the survival contest, when the students were ordered to sit down on the floor and to remain quiet.
The sitting part they managed, the quiet, not so much. What had happened? They wondered. Had someone violated some sacrosanct commandment and was the entire group being punished as a result? No answers were readily forthcoming. The students sat for what, to their childish internal clocks, seemed like hours, but in adult time was only a few minutes.
All at once a young male teacher returned and ordered the students to stand, to line up and to march back to their classrooms straight-away.
Numerous queries of why and what we had done wrong, were met with the same terse reply, “Your teacher will tell you.”
So the class marched out the door and into the hallway. As they passed the office an old teacher (a woman who must have been all of 40), walked past, tears streaming down her face.
“What’s wrong?” several children asked, almost as one.
“The president’s been shot,” she said, dabbing at her tears with a tissue as she hurried off.
The boy was a cynic, and had a bit of a smart mouth. He turned to a companion and said, “Oh, yeah, right, and I’ll bet the Russians have bombed the White House, too.”
The students’ mood was unsettled as they filed back into the classroom and took their seats. Their young teacher, who had a soft spot for cats, had obviously been crying, her eyes were red and her cheeks were mottled and moist.
With an obvious effort to control her voice, the woman told the class what had happened. The president of the United States had been shot and killed that very day in Dallas.
The room erupted with a flurry of questions. The teacher answered as many as she could, then told the teachers to take out some school work or other reading material to occupy them for the rest of the day.
The boy was stunned. He liked the young president, with his beautiful wife and two little kids. He spent his early years under Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. The old general was a fine president in the boy’s eyes, but the vibrant Kennedy represented a new generation of leaders.
He had challenged us to ask what we could do for our countries, and goaded the world to work for freedom.
He supported desegregation, stood up for those trapped behind the Berlin Wall and made Nikita Khrushchev blink in a staring contest that made for some nervous days around the boy’s household.
And now he was dead, cut down by an assassin’s bullet, joining Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley in that grim club.
The boy didn’t cry. That would come later. Instead he opened his book and thought, “The president’s been killed and I’m reading ‘30 Seconds over Tokyo,’” which he thought was somehow ironic and profound.
After the final bell it was movie time. The Milk Duds tasted just fine, despite the news of the day.
As he walked home into the setting sun of that clear late-November day, the nearly leafless trees silhouetted against the orange-yellow sky, the boy had the sense the world had changed.
He didn’t cry, but his heart was heavy as he watched the widow in her blood-stained pink suit following the casket as it was unloaded from Air Force One, as the caisson leading the riderless black horse rolled slowly through the streets of Washington, D.C., as the little boy who had just lost his daddy threw a jaunty salute as the procession moved past.
The boy cries far more easily these days. He was moved to tears by the museum on the sixth floor of what was the Texas School Book Depository, and again recently by the words of the first lady as she climbed onto the back of the presidential limousine in the wake of the shooting, “They have killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand.”
The world did change that grim, long-ago November day, and so has the boy.
It was supposed to be a good day.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.