Thursday, November 21, 2013

That gray November day

I think it was a gray, misty day in Delaware: November 22, 1963. We lived near the Delaware River in the area known as Edgemoor, north of the city of Wilmington, and fog on the river was a typical autumn occurrence. Maybe I'm lost in the fog of memory, but I seem to remember a mistiness in the air, a dank chill. Or perhaps that's the "pathetic fallacy," a literary device which depicts nature as a mirror for our moods (see the storm on the heath in King Lear). In any event, in my recollection of that day, fog overlay the familiar landscape.

On the day President Kennedy was killed, I was in the 5th grade at Edgemoor School -- but I wasn't in school that day. I have forgotten why not. I was not ill, since I was able to run errands with my mother. We were at the Merchandise Mart, a nearby shopping center, and Mom had taken me into the Bank of Delaware, where she wanted to check on an item in her safe-deposit box (we always called it the "safety-deposit box" for some reason). I remember we had entered the big vault with the bank employee, and were waiting for her to pull out the box, when we learned the President had been shot in Dallas. That scene -- the interior of the bank vault, the polished brass surfaces of the walls of locked boxes -- was burned into my memory. Strangely, my mother's reaction has not remained with me; I recall only my physical surroundings in that one second of shock and disbelief.  Everything inside and outside of me stood perfectly still, as if time had frozen.

Finishing up our errands, then, seemed all that we could do. In the checkout line at Eckerd's drugstore, we learned that the President had, in fact, just died. I slipped out of line and selected a sympathy card for Mrs. Kennedy, which we mailed the next day. I remember I signed it, "Judy Vaughan, age 10"). I did eventually get a card back in acknowledgement, which I treasured for many years. I have lost track of it now, alas.

What a weekend followed! This may have been the first time Americans gathered around the TV as witnesses to a national tragedy. Even had I been less inclined to watch, Dad would have sat me down in front of the TV. "This is history in the making -- pay attention!" he said numerous times that weekend.

And so we watched as the whole sad story played out: the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, the return to Washington of the President's body, the swearing in of LBJ. On Sunday, as Oswald was about to be moved from the local jail to another facility, my Dad left the TV on while we ate our Sunday dinner. "They better be careful," he opined. "Somebody's probably going to shoot him." Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby about five minutes later. We jumped up from the table and watched in horror as Dad's words came true.

I remember other national events, of course: the murder of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr., the killings at Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia. But none of those events marked my childhood as profoundly as did the Kennedy assassination. That one, foggy day changed everything.

No comments: