Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'The Cemetery Hills Seemed Covered with a Dark Blanket'

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'The Cemetery Hills Seemed Covered with a Dark Blanket'

Article excerpt

THE FLAG-DRAPED coffin atop the artillery caisson. The perfect military formations. The line of limos stretching across the Potomac bridge. The silence broken by the wind in the trees and the clickity- clack of horses' hooves.

This was Arlington National Cemetery a half-century ago for the burial of President John F. Kennedy.

I was there.

For those who lived through it, Kennedy's assassination is rooted in our personal geography, with conversations that invariably begin with a question that has now evolved into a mantra of that day: Where were you when you heard?

Few other tragedies, with the possible exception of the 9/11 attacks, are so indelibly connected to our sense of place. Perhaps it was the shock of what happened. Perhaps it was the sense that the world suddenly seemed vulnerable. But at that moment in 1963 when we heard the news that the president had been killed -- and during the mournful days that followed -- we needed to be grounded, firmly. We needed to remember where we were.

I was a fifth grader at St. Michael's School in Annandale, Va., a suburb of Washington. Just after lunch and recess, the principal announced over the loud speaker that the president had been shot in Dallas. The school loudspeakers fell silent and we tried to continue with whatever subject we were studying at the time.

But an hour later, the principal's voice again broke into the day, this time with even worse news. Kennedy was dead.

Tragedy unfolds on TV

We rushed home and turned on the television - in my family's case, a black-and-white set that was perhaps no more than 20 inches wide.

What took place over the next four days was something America had never witnessed - live television footage of a national tragedy, with the nation curled up on what seemed to be a collective sofa.

Before 1963, America learned about such difficult moments through newspapers, on the radio, or through film and video footage. Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and the ensuing days of choreographed memorials in Washington, culminating with his funeral and burial on Nov. 25, was the first time the entire nation came together through live television. It would not be the last.

I had an unlikely advantage, however. I was close enough to Washington to see some of the memorial ceremonies in person.

On Sunday morning, my family stood on a Constitution Avenue sidewalk - not far from the Smithsonian - and watched the horse- drawn gun caisson carry Kennedy's remains to the U.S. Capitol. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, rode by in a black limo, his face long and worn. He waved slightly as he passed our group. But what I most remember of that day were the words of a man standing behind us with a transistor radio.

Another shooting

"Oswald's been shot," he shouted.

The next day - Monday - we piled into the family Ford Fairlane. …

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