November 22, 1963, A Date to Remember

Posted: November 21, 2013 in New Post

JFKWhere were you the day President Kennedy was shot? This is a question often asked of the members of my generation. To the Millennium Generation, November 22, 1963 is a date from a history book, a date to memorize, a question on a pop quiz. But to those of my generation who lived through it, it was a day of emotion, a day of anguish, a day of lost dreams. It wasn’t history, it was personal.

1963 was the year I turned 14, entered high school, and begin my journey to adulthood. Just three years earlier, my role models were athletes and movie spies, but that all changed with the presidential election of 1960. That was the year I was introduced to a new kind of role model, not one who hit home runs or defeated evil foreign agents, but one who cared for his country and the people in it. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was new. He was a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and the first Catholic to become president. That last fact, seemingly inconsequential today, was a really big deal to the country as a whole, and to my family in particular. In our living room there hung three portraits: The Sacred Heart of Jesus, The Virgin Mary, and John F. Kennedy.

JFK_limousineThe afternoon of November 22 didn’t seem special. It was the end of the school week and the weekend before a Thanksgiving break. Cathedral High School was run by the Diocese of Scranton and that particular week was for religious retreat. It was to end with a Mass of thanksgiving and an early start to the weekend. Then, like a punch in the stomach, the news hit. Half way through the mass the priest walked  to the lectern and made the announcement that the president had been shot in Dallas. His condition unknown, we would all stop and say the rosary for his recovery, a recovery that would never come. About midway through the prayers came the news that John F. Kennedy had passed away, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. We finished our prayers and walked out of church in stunned silence.

The bus ride home seemed to take twice as long that day. I had never lost a family member and wondered what the scene would be on my arrival home. I ran most of the two blocks to my house on Franklin Street and was greeted by my Aunt Carmella, with tears in her eyses and asking “Did you hear! It’s just awful, our man is dead!” “Our man” was always understood to be the man in the White House, the symbol of hope and change for which a gerneration waited, the man of the people.

thThe scene in my living room was that of a funeral. The black and white tube that brought 15 minutes of news every night was now the focus of the entire family. That tube was transformed into a policeman calling to tell the family there had been an accident, the doctor in the ER who coming out to tell the family a loved one has been lost. When I walked in they hardly noticed.  Their eyes, filled with tears, were fixed on the scene in Dallas. Reporters and eyewitnesses were still trying to understand what had just happened. Images of the monster who pulled the trigger, Officer J.D. Tippit who was killed trying to apprehend the suspect, Parkland General Hospital who tried to save our champion, and the casket that held his remains being lifted onto the plane for the last ride home to Washington. There in the living room, three generations sat mourning for a man with which we never had a conversation or shared a meal but was as much a member of our household as anyone there.

The generations in that room had bravely left their homelands to start a new life in this country of promise, had survived an economic depression, had lost sons and brothers to war, and had seen their hope renewed in the person of this young president. In an instant, with the flash of three shots from a 6.5 mm Carcano carbine, that hope had vanished. Tears were shed in that room for the President, for the beautiful young family that had just lost its father, and for three generations of Italian Americans who had just lost their hopes for a brighter future. The torch of leadership that had been passed to a new generation was now to be turned into an eternal flame of sorrow.

November 22, 1963 is a date. It is a date in history. It is a date to remember where you were when you heard the news that the president had been killed. For me it wasn’t a question of where I was, but of what I felt. It is a date of emotion, of sorrow, and of loss. It is a date that three generations of my family lost their promise of hope and change.

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