Asking “Where were you when--?” is an age-revealer. “Where were you when ‘Challenger’ exploded?” “Where were you when you heard Elvis had died?” And this week, most of all, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”
Just as it is this year, in 1963 the 22nd of November was on a Friday, with Thanksgiving on the 28th.
I was in sixth grade. Someone came to the door of our classroom and spoke to the teacher in a low voice; she turned and announced that the President had been shot in Dallas, with no further news available. Perhaps ten minutes later, the principal came on over the loudspeaker to tell us President Kennedy was dead.
We were sent home earlier than usual that day, and when the funeral was scheduled for Monday it seemed as though everything closed: we had no school, and my father’s employer closed as well, giving him an unexpected day off.
My family spent the weekend watching television - unheard of in our house - and I’m not sure but what my parents practically slept in the living room. If the coverage wasn’t round-the-clock, it was close.
My brother and I asked if we could all go to Washington to see the funeral; we lived maybe some forty miles northwest of DC. Dad said it wouldn’t be worth it, as the tremendous crowds sure to turn up would mean we wouldn’t be able to see anything, that we’d have a better view with the TV broadcast.
He was right. While he had a genuine appreciation of history, and an awareness that this was history in the making, he also recognized that "modern technology" was a tool to be used. Watching on television took none of the immediacy away, and if anything probably enabled me to see the funeral live in its entirety, rather than only a glimpse of what might pass directly in front of us. And indeed, the scenes from that day have stayed in my memory for these fifty years.
Because we didn’t go to the funeral my father earmarked the Friday following Thanksgiving for a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Dad said that we could pay our respects, and also get a sense of being part of the history, the drama, of the event.
So the Friday after Thanksgiving, one week after Kennedy’s assassination, we drove to Washington.
We had to park some distance from Arlington’s gates, as there were no cars permitted on the grounds, at least on that day. The weather was clear, chilly but not freezing cold, as I recall. The crowds pretty much filled the walkways from side to side, perhaps four or five people abreast, and the line stretched… well, I’m not sure how far. Almost to the gates, maybe. We were near the end of the line when I turned and took this photograph:
I’m not sure how well this picture will turn out, but I think you’ll be able to see the cars parked at the bottom - they were DC police, stationed there to make sure no one drove into the cemetery, I suppose. And you may be able to see the groups of people making their way up to the gates.
The Kennedy gravesite looked very different then, of course. Although the eternal flame had been lit - and I don’t think it’s visible in any of my pictures, as the black-and-white film doesn’t really show it up - there was no stonework, no engravings, no markers. All of that came later.
There were posts with ropes to indicate the path to follow and a picket fence around JFK’s grave - I don’t believe either of the children had been moved there yet, and obviously this was years before Bobby Kennedy’s death.
The gravesite was knee-deep in flowers with masses of them also laid out on the rise of the hill, above the grave:
In this next one, you can see some of the crowds of people as they moved past the gravesite. You see what I mean about the posts - movable stanchions - with ropes strung between them. There were honor guardsmen, perhaps from the same detail as those who patrol the Tomb of the Unknowns:
As much as anything it was the silence that impressed me. I don’t remember hearing a sound. I suppose there must have been murmured conversations, a cough, the click of a camera, perhaps some whispers. I remember only the immensity of the silence. So many people - so little sound.
I found the next photo on the internet, with no credit given. It was taken after the posts had become permanent, with chains instead of ropes, but still looks to be before the Kennedy babies were interred beside their father. If the picket fence was temporary early on, it appears to have become more solid by this point:
This photo is after the children’s bodies had been moved to either side of the president’s:
I think the following - which clearly shows the eternal flame’s point as well as at least two of the name-plaques on the gravesite - is a picture taken relatively early in the stone remodelling of the site, as there is more extensive stonework now, I believe:
I haven’t been there in a few years. Each time I go, it seems they’ve added something new. It’s a beautiful site, with an incredible view over the city.
None of my subsequent visits has had the impact, though, of that first one. Dad was right. He knew it would make an indelible impression, of the time, the era, of that very moment when the world changed.