I still remember the names of my grade school teachers back in Kansas, and also my principal. I’d always wait patiently for the handsome Oscar Swift while seated on the long wooden bench outside his office. I’d be in line often to have Mr. Swift attach a bunny sticker to my spelling test for a perfect score of 100 percent. Some days I’d even run into my brother sitting there for ‘other’ reasons, as I did one fall morning back in third grade. I nodded to him, feeling smug, then left to cross over the creek back home for lunch.
As usual, Mom was down in the basement ironing Dad’s white shirts for work at the ad agency. I loved the smell of the starch, the warmth of the steam, and the hissing sound from the iron as she pressed down hard around the tabs. I squatted cross-legged on the rug in front of the blonde wooden TV cabinet, munching on a tuna sandwich. As usual, Mom was engrossed with the drama of her favorite soap, “As The World Turns.”
Suddenly the dramatic scene before us was cut short. Replaced with one even more intense. A CBS news bulletin with Walter Cronkite’s voice. He sounded distracted and stressed, like Dad after a long day of work.
I heard phrases like, “May be dead.”
Mom put down the iron and sat down numb on the couch. Her ashen face heavy in her hands.
I ran back to school as fast as I could. I told my teacher, Miss Dunham, “Kennedy’s been shot!”
She looked at me, horrified, then tore down the hall to Mr. Swift’s office. I gently sobbed as I sat, wishing I hadn’t told her. I put my head down on my desk.
I wondered if she believed me. I wondered why she was still gone.
She finally returned after what seemed an eternity. It was probably more like a half hour. Her face was red. Her eyes were puffy. She looked as if she’d been crying a long time. And she was silent.
Mr. Swift then came over the PA system to solemnly announce that President Kennedy had passed away.
The next few days were a blur. I read my Kennedy comic books about the idyllic life of Caroline, little John John, and their pony Macaroni. I played with my Kennedy trading cards I’d purchased in the gum machine, next to the baseball cards.
And I colored a portrait of the Kennedy family that I mailed to Jackie Kennedy at the White House.
Finally, Mom encouraged me to go play at my friend Wendy’s house two doors down. But we didn’t. We turned on the TV.
And we watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot.
I believe my childhood innocence disappeared that November week in 1963.
And fifty years later, I’m still trying to figure out just where it went.