Moments in history are both fleeting — and enduring.
On PBS this past weekend, a home TV was on and I heard that slow-step drumbeat from the somber military procession, the cortege marching down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as the flag-draped coffin of the 35th president of the United States slowly rolled along on a horse-drawn caisson toward Arlington Cemetery. Old memories flooded back, and that unceasing drumbeat kept going on, as if it would never end.
I’ve previously written about historic events that have affected me, have affected you, that have affected the way we perceive our nation and the way others perceive us.
Not sure about any of you, but I can count on one hand history-charged events that struck me to the core.
The Murrah Building bombing, the 9/11 attacks and the Cuban Missile Crisis all come readily to mind.
But all pale to events 50 years ago next week, when this nation stopped — the world stopped — when an assassin’s bullet felled the president of the United States.
Try as I might, I still have difficulty gauging just why that chilling event evokes more emotion than any of the other preceding watershed events.
And, as I counted backward to see just how old I was when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot in the head as his motorcade wended through downtown Dallas those 50 years ago, the obvious hit me.
I was 14 years old, just three weeks from my 15th birthday — an extraordinarily impressionable age, at an exceedingly impressionable time of life.
I was in the eighth grade, that age in education when you are in transition from the frivolity of grade school days, into the seriousness of high school and beyond.
It was just another school day in November, as everyone was looking forward to Thanksgiving and days off from school.
There was a junior high basketball game going on in the old gym at Waukomis High School, as the seventh- and eighth-grade girls and boys teams were playing ball at noon, as was the custom in 1963 to play in the middle of the day.
As boys’ team manager, I was the go-between from locker room to the outside world on that black Friday, having heard in the hallway the president had been shot in Dallas. I was sent by coach to follow news on the TV that stood in the old study hall, maybe 20 steps from the locker room door. That black-and-white TV usually was reserved each year for the October World Series, which back in the day actually was played during daylight hours.
But the TV was turned on this November day, and the news kept trickling in, as the boys’ team dressed for its upcoming game.
I vividly remember, as if it happened yesterday, hearing and seeing Walter Cronkite, obviously emotional, taking his glasses off and telling the world President John F. Kennedy was dead.
That’s when that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach came over me, and it didn’t leave for seeming days and days.
I hustled into the locker room and relayed the bad news. No one said much, as I recall. Each was stunned or oblivious in his own way. None of us had ever heard news like this — it was only something you read about in history books.
But this was real.
For some reason, I stayed home from church the following Sunday, and remember for the first time in my young life consciously watching television news, paying attention to current events. I remember watching accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being led through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, and on live TV seeing him shot down by a man later identified as Jack Ruby.
My world, it seemed, had stopped. And for the first time, I realized this was history unfolding before my eyes, in real time. It was not a frayed history book or a teacher’s lesson.
I had gone to school on a day in late November 1963 an eighth-grade student, still struggling to transition toward four years of high school and all the things that entails, and came home to a changed nation.
The Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and the Cuban Missile Crisis all were immense history-changing events. As an adult, I studied them closely — as journalist, as an interested American. All still pale in memory to JFK’s assassination, only because of my impressionable age and the death of a popular young president — a war hero.
He was the first president I remember being president. For a history buff, that is telling.
So, on Nov. 22, 1963, when an assassin’s bullet felled John F. Kennedy, everything in the world stopped and suddenly became real — as it did for most Americans 50 years ago.
And that unceasing drumbeat still goes on in my head.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking
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