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No Ordinary Afternoon

November 21, 2013

That Friday afternoon in November started out to be an ordinary one for most Americans, I suspect. It certainly was for me. I sat in Miss Pemberton’s typing class, an unfocused high school sophomore concerned with a great number of things, none of them typing.

Then the announcement came over the school’s intercom. The President had been shot. An atmosphere of surreality descended over the country. During the following days, a strange collective trance seemed to envelop us fueled by the backdrop of a constant stream of TV reportage.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This ranks as one of those rare events that occur — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attacks on 9/11 — that profoundly affect the entire society. They grip us and create haunting memories that we can’t help but carry with us. For the generations that have come since this happened, it is perhaps only history. But for those who were old enough to be aware on that day, it is much more than that. We remember — where we were, what we saw, what we felt.

The killing of the leader of a major nation is always of great consequence; that the country was ours — the mighty United States of America — made it even more so. The shooting happened in public view at a time when TV coverage had become widespread. The victim was young and charismatic, and his death seemed to signal an abrupt change in the national psyche and a loss of innocence.

There will be much public reflection on what transpired the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Television will revisit the old black and white footage. The famous Zapruder film of the shots striking the President in his open limousine will be replayed. The perspective of important people will be aired. But it is each individual’s own recollections of that afternoon that sustains the impact of this date.

Certain images remain clear in my own memory. Exiting through the halls of my school and seeing — for the first time — teachers with tears in their eyes. Watching my classmate Marty Altschul walking home alone down Prospect Avenue, his steps slow and his lanky body slouched in sorrow. Feeling the somber mood that exuded almost palpably from the expressions of every person encountered.

The heart of the football season was upon us. My high school team, at that time rather pathetic, had only one winnable game on its schedule. That game against the even more hapless Cliffside Park Raiders happened to fall on that Saturday. The game was cancelled as were virtually all other scheduled events that weekend, athletic or otherwise. Instead, our eyes were fixed in disbelief at our TV sets. The madness continued as the country watched accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, surrounded by Texas Rangers as they escorted him from the jail, shot. It became increasingly difficult to make sense of what was going on and why.

The funeral procession captivated the mournful soul of the American people, a veiled Jackie maintaining her composure with her children at her side, the riderless black stallion skittishly following the caisson with the flag-draped coffin, the constant thrumming of the drums.  Our sorrow crystallized as we watched Kennedy’s son, not yet three years old, salute as the casket rolled by. We now faced an unsettled future, our confidence shaken, the possibilities — real or imagined — of Camelot shattered.

Much has been written about the sudden end to the flawed presidency of JFK and the subsequent controversy surrounding his death. That is not what makes this afternoon resonate still after half a century has gone by. Rather, it is the way in which this most disturbing and tragic event touched each individual on what was, by any standard of judgment, no ordinary afternoon.

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