We are in our eighth-grade classroom on a Friday, stifling yawns after lunch, when the speaker on the wall squawks out a brief message: President Kennedy was shot dead today in Dallas.
Suddenly, we aren’t drowsy. While we are still trying to put our brains around the news, class breaks for afternoon recess.
We stand on the cold playground, thoughts of football forgotten. I already know who has killed John F. Kennedy. It is the Russians.
Everything has been building to this. For months, jets have been flying southward over our houses ever since the Bay of Pigs debacle that the new president inherited and the Cuban Missile Crisis that made Russia blink in failure. Nikita Khrushchev has said he will bury us, and now he has started at the top. It’s so obvious to this 13-year-old.
We are kids, but politics creeps into the classroom. Our class has read My Weekly Reader about the young president and his plans and his foes.
When we were even younger, word spread through the halls that if Richard Nixon were elected, we would have nuclear war with Russia, but if Kennedy were elected, we would go to school with black kids. The implication was that the latter was a worse fate.
Kids can be so stupid, but they learn at home.
We are already familiar with the duck-and-cover drills. We’ve been warned not to eat the first snow because it picked up all the radioactive dust. We’ve begged our parents to dig fallout shelters. We watch Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley each night in horror.
Up North, a young Bob Dylan is singing a protest song with the words: “I’ve learned to hate Russians, all through my whole life. If another war comes, it’s them we must fight.” Everyone knows that. A president is dead; the only answer is war.
Two days later, nothing has calmed down. We are eating a late breakfast at home and watching the news when a man rushes up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shoots him. It was the first of many live killings we would see from our living rooms.
The next day in school, everyone is herded into the lunchroom, where all chairs face the black-and-white television set on the stage. Students weep as the first president to die during our lifetimes rolls slowly by behind white horses. It’s too much to take in.
My friend Wayne and I ask for permission to get a drink of water. We are told to go outside to the fountain against the cafeteria wall. The door locks behind us, and when we try to go back in, we can’t. We don’t really want to, anyway, and we don’t care to bang on the door during a funeral. We just stay outside and kick gravel around. We don’t talk.
The teacher finally misses us and drags us back inside. No, we’re not trying to play hooky. Who cares, anyway?
Standing outside in the cold, at least, helps kill the pain.