Sunday Morning Coffee — November 22, 2020 — 57 Years Ago Today 🇺🇸

November 22, 2020 Uncategorized 19 Comments

It probably started out like any other Friday in the sixth grade at Meadowbrook Elementary School. No doubt the same scene played out in every school across the country.

East Meadow, the Long Island community that housed Meadowbrook, was white bread suburbia. At any given PTA meeting you could find Ward and June Clever and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson clones gathered around the punch bowl.

Fifty-seven years is a long time ago. I was eleven. There isn’t much I remember about being eleven other than I wasn’t ten anymore. These days, fifty-seven years later to the day, I can remember fifty-seven seconds ago but would be hard pressed on fifty-seven minutes.

Recall is a very strange thing. Especially when trauma and emotion are involved. I’m guessing this particular Friday, November 22, 1963, started like any other routine fall day. The Los Angeles Dodgers had won the World Series five weeks earlier sweeping the Yankees. That was okay; I was still a Pirates fan. Neither the Knicks nor the Rangers, cellar dwellers, lost the night before because neither had played. The Rangers were 5-11; the Knicks 6-12. Not much has changed in half a century.  Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, was less than a week away; the air was getting crisp and the New York fall colors were on display. Life was good and so was that morning going to school.

Just another day until about 1:45 in the afternoon. Then everything changed. Forever.  It’s as vivid today as a Memorex moment, decades before Memorex. The school principal, Albert Tyler, got on the public address system. He never did that. That’s the same Mr. Tyler who would walk into the lunchroom and instantaneously everyone stopped eating and talking. I never could figure that out. Still can’t. I bet it happened in your school, too. Mr. Tyler looked like a school principal — tall, stiff and wearing a pair of glasses that looked like he meant business. He was probably in his fifties but to us kids he might as well have been a hundred.

His PA announcement shook the school. “The President has been shot.” Those are the only words I remember. “The President has been shot.” Gasp. Quiet. Confusion. Our teacher, Mrs. Miller, had no calming words. Tears.

About thirty minutes later Mr. Tyler came back on the PA. “President Kennedy is dead.” We didn’t know much more. The President was in Dallas, Texas, and killed. We still had an hour of school remaining. I’m not sure why but I was asked by Mrs. Miller to run an errand to the school office. I was scared beyond scared. I can still see it and feel it today. My seat, in alphabetical order, was second in the first row right behind Spencer Ackerman. The school hallway was long, or so it seemed to a kid, with glass entry and exit doors at either end. I had no idea how far Dallas was from New York, but I remember thinking as I walked as fast as I could, almost in a jog, that by now the killer could be close by.

Our after-school bowling league was canceled. So were all other post-school activities. Our family of five gathered at home, around the kitchen table, watching Walter Cronkite on the Admiral TV with the rabbit ears on the easy-to-wheel TV stand. We were high tech. Mom didn’t cook that night, instead we had Chicken Delight. She took their jingle, ‘Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight,’ literally. Dad tried to help us make sense of what we were watching. Neither he nor Mr. Cronkite really could.

Fifty-seven years ago today. A memory that has lasted a lifetime but sadly will undoubtedly be reduced to a footnote in today’s Sunday newspapers.

My copy of the November 23, 1963  NY Daily News

I have no recollection of a nation in mourning the day after, Saturday, November 23. I’m sure I devoured every newspaper I could get my hands on. I still have my copy of the New York Daily News that Dad bought for me. Cost a nickel. It’s now yellow and parched, much like me.

The next day, Sunday, I was at our neighbor’s house to watch the Giants-St. Louis Cardinals football game. All college football on Saturday was canceled. The nation was weeping. Sunday’s American Football League games were scrapped, too. The NFL games went on despite the players not wanting to play. Commissioner Pete Rozelle made the decision to take the field after consulting with JFK’s good friend and press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who said the President would have wanted it that way. Later Rozelle admitted it was the worst decision of his career.

Ruby shot Oswald as a stunned nation watched live on television.

About a half hour before the traditional 1 pm eastern kick-off, all the networks were live in Dallas awaiting the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald, arrested as the suspected assassin of the President. He was to be moved from Dallas police headquarters to a local jail. As Oswald was being escorted up a garage ramp, the television audience was stunned when a man jumped in front of Oswald and shot him in the stomach. It was reality television at its earliest and most sensational. A murder played out for all to see. Chaos and confusion. On camera, people yelling and running. Oswald went down as police officers apprehended the shooter, later identified as Jack Ruby, a two-bit mob wannabe, who ran a local strip club. Ruby was known to all the local authorities and had no problem getting inside police security, which wasn’t too secure at all. We all watched. But I don’t think I fully comprehended the enormity of what I saw. The networks stayed with the coverage and none of the ill-advised NFL games were broadcast.

I ran home. I’ll never forget my dad’s first reaction. Jack Ruby was Jewish, born Jacob Rubenstein. Dad was worried that Jews might be held accountable for the murder. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Oswald was the country’s number one villain. He also killed a Dallas police officer after he shot the President on this day in 1963. Ruby almost achieved hero status for his action. In fact, the crowd assembled outside the Dallas police headquarters burst into applause when they heard Oswald was shot. The secret of the Kennedy assassination was forever sealed that day. Did Oswald act alone? Was he acting on behalf of others? Did the Soviets, the Cubans or the mob commission him and then hire Ruby to silence Oswald? Or were the Patriots responsible? Even back then, we Jets fans blamed the Patriots for everything that went wrong. Or did Ruby just act alone, like an American vigilante? Ruby, 52, had a reputation as being a bit of a psycho. Did he feel he owed it to President Kennedy to avenge his death? Like either a good mob soldier or just a kook, Ruby’s secret died with him four years later in jail from cancer.

Eternal flame at JFK’s gravesite.

Monday, November 25, 1963, was an official day of mourning in the United States. Schools and businesses were closed. President Kennedy was buried that afternoon. The D.C. day was wintry cold. One million people lined the funeral route. The bagpipers. Jackie Kennedy, joined by JFK’s brothers Bobby and Ted, walked behind the President’s body riding on the caisson. So did newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson over Secret Service objections. The riderless horse. JFK Jr.’s salute. Arlington National Cemetery. The eternal flame at the gravesite, which had this eleven-year-old mesmerized, still burns brightly today. A united country. Chilling.

For my generation that was the end of the societal innocence that we never realized we were blessed with. Two more high-profile assassinations before the decade of the 60s ended — Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam, inner city riots, peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests, campus shootings, Watergate, the Challenger explosion, terrorist bombings, 9/11, school murders and now COVID. The list is far from complete but the world, our generational world, was never the same after November 22, 1963.

Dealey Plaza

I never stopped being both haunted and captivated with the recollection of that day. The setting in Dallas of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked and shot out of an upper floor corner window; Dealey Plaza, where the School Book Depository was located; Kennedy’s limousine route through the plaza; the grassy knoll, where conspiracy theorists say there was a second shooter; the mall area where people were eating lunch, gathered to see the President — all of that was so large and prominent in my mind’s eye. Five years ago, while on business in Dallas, I finally made it to Dealey Plaza in the West End district of the city. I was excited to be going there. It was something I always wanted to see, feel and touch for myself. I anticipated everything I had seen, read and absorbed for over half a century. Turning the corner on Market Street, I was taken aback by how compact everything was. It looked like a movie set on the Warner Brothers lot. I took the tour and then spent a lot of time walking the area recounting how things played out. November 22, 1963 came back to life.

Hawkers were all over the Plaza. I had a twenty-something selling old newspaper headline replicas and tacky souvenirs approach and ask me, “Do you have any questions about the Kennedy Assassination?”

I laughed. “Young man,” I said. “Have a seat. I’ve got a story to tell you.”

19 Comments

  • Jeff Gingold says:

    Nice job of capturing what we experienced

  • James says:

    Thousands of miles away, in rural Ireland, the shock numbed famine sues alike.
    Pubs closed!!
    Churches filled!
    The country cried!!
    OUR Irish Catholic President, adored by all, was dead.
    It took years to come to terms with.

  • Ken Rich says:

    We all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the president was shot. I was a freshman in college and I was in the shower and preparing for a pre-game pep rally that never occurred.

  • Thank you for this Roy. I looked at my phone this morning, saw the date, and the memory came clanging back. It’s like 9/11 – we will never forget where we were and what we were doing. Because of the time change, it was evening in London, and I was preparing to watch my favorite TV show and the screen went black. And then the news of the shooting…then later his death. You recreated it beautifully and I’m grateful!

  • Roy Abrams says:

    Roy…you nailed this one. To the details that I recall. The emotion and helplessness was something I never experienced.

    I was a junior at Syracuse University, playing bridge, on that fateful day. The TV was on in the day room at Phi Sigma Delta and we watched in horror. Same thing a few days later seeing Jack Ruby murder Oswald on TV. That was the day “I grew up”…like the “Day the Music Died”. And my parents had the identical reaction yours had. I was 20 and I never thought of anti-semitism even coming up…although I had times I experienced it in other forms.

    Nicely done my friend. And by the way, in 1964 I got season tickets to the NY Rangers and drove with my friend from Syracuse to NYC almost every Wednesday and Sunday to watch a pathetic team play. Six hours each way. Never missed a class. And when they finally one (pun intended) the Stanley Cup in 1994, my first purchase was a tee shirt which said proudly “now I can die in peace”. I still have it somewhere in my house.

  • Pamela somerville says:

    You and I were in Mrs. Miller’s class together and described the whole trauma vividly. The thing that has stuck with me is I was working on a report on Viet Nam. I didn’t understand the significance of that until years later. I had my New York Daily News copy until recently. Thanks for the reminder of the day!

  • Laurie Parr says:

    I was yet to be born, but I grew up with the stories from my dad and grandparents. His death always haunted me and I have read so much about it, that I have always had to remind myself that I didn’t live through it. Your detailed version will now reside along side all of my other versions. Thank you again for your wonderful insights on life.

  • David Pokress says:

    I was in fifth grade and the school was suddenly dismissed. No announcement. We knew something was terribly wrong because all the teachers were crying.

    My brother and I watched TV as Ruby shot Oswald and we cheered. Our mother was standing beside us and said now we will never know the truth about the assassination.

    In 1984 I was in Dallas for the first time. I was driving from the airport, the opposite direction from the president’s motorcade, when I approached an intersection. I got an eerie feeling that I was somewhere familiar but I didn’t know where. Then I saw a street sign. Dealey Plaza. My heart sank.

  • Bobbie Congress says:

    This is so good, I wish I wrote it. And Mr.Tyler! Mrs. Miller! Spencer Ackerman! Chicken Delight!

    I hope I’m alive in 2060, when Jacqueline Kennedy’s papers are released. If I am, I hope I remember who she was.

  • Mat Whatley says:

    Another great “Cup”!
    Thanks Roy

  • Cowboy Billy says:

    The Dallas policeman killed by Oswald was Officer J.D. Tippit. Lest we forget. Let’s don’t remember the names of Oswald and Ruby without also remembering Officer Tippit.

    True story, Roy, that still gives me chills to think about today: In 1960 when JFK was elected President, my parents, who were Republican supporters of Richard Nixon, were quite upset. I was in the third grade then and used a new word I had just learned the meaning of when I said, “well, maybe someone will assassinate him,” not realizing the gravity of what I was saying. My mother replied, “well, we sure hope not, because then Johnson would become President and that would be the worst thing that could happen to this country.” The prescience of both mine and my mother’s statements are eerie to me even today.

  • Greg Cherok says:

    I had just turned 8 years old the week before. The principal at my school, Central School in Tower Hill, PA, also came over the PA system with the announcement and, as yours did, my teacher started crying. This time in history is also frozen in my mind. We were let out of school early that day and when I got home that afternoon, all the neighborhood mom’s were in our living room watching Walter on our black & white TV crying and crying. I will never forget that day either.

  • Dean Kieler says:

    Very well written Roy. Thank you.

  • Phil says:

    Wonderful evocative piece, Roy! That photo of Oswald being shot has been indelibly etched into my mind for or all these years. And you’re right, none of my news feeds had the slightest mention of anniversary of the event. I miss the days of reading the Daily News back then, when all news sources were considered to be truth. Stay healthy!

  • Fran Fishman says:

    Thanks for the very sad memories. I,too, was at Meadowbrook in 5th grade w Ms Slivka
    as my teacher.
    I’ll never forget. Wasnt Mr Tyler always red in the face? Scary guy!
    So many years ago….never forgotten!

  • Wade says:

    Thanks Roy ,

    One of life’s event you never forget. 10th grade , still remember my history teacher’s jaw drop when the announcement came over the PA system. I wonder if we would have a different world if that day never happened.

  • Lew Matusow says:

    Beautifully done, RB. I remember as if were yesterday.

    But I have one more strange memory connected with this terrible, terrible day.

    Some 24 years or so after the assassination, I was in Dallas for the National timeshare convention and I decided to visit the book depository and take the incredibly interesting tour/exhibition. Looking at the displays, etc., I naturally found myself daydreaming back to that day in junior high (remember, I’m slightly older than you but Principal Poe coming on the loudspeaker was just as chilling as your Mr. Tyler).

    Suddenly I hear commotion down in Dealey Plaza and I look out. I must be daydreaming, I thought to myself. Here comes a motorcade rounding the corner with a convertible Lincoln, escorted by cops. Shots ring out. A family on the grassy knoll drops to the ground, a father shielding his two children with his body.

    Wow, I really wish I had done drugs when you and I worked on The Hurricane student newspaper at the ‘U’ (although nobody called it the ‘U’ back then). THAT might explain what I THOUGHT I was seeing.

    But there was actually a much simpler explanation; they were actually shooting the movie JFK that day and I just happened to be at ‘ground zero.’

    That made TWO terrible assassination memories for me. But the first one will be with me until the day I die.

    Again, the usual great stuff Roy.

  • Bill Floyd says:

    I am sure every generation has at least one date that they remember and is etched into their mind. Where they were at the time, and what they were doing will always be remembered. For my generation, there were two events that claimed that place in history: Kennedy’s Assassination and the attack on the World Trade Center. Now, we may have a third event: The Presidential Election of 2020.

  • Roy; I was working for the FBI identification lab in Washington DC that day. Hoover more or less locked us down that day to process multitudes of finger prints coming in from Dallas. Then; the funeral which most FBI employees attended.
    Hoover and Kennedy were definitely not BFF; but that day we were all United as Americans.

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