They say everyone can remember where they were if they are old enough. I’m old enough.
I was sitting in a classroom at St. Francis Catholic School in my hometown of Bend, Ore. It was a Friday in late November – and the only thing on my mind was that the weekend was just hours away. I had plans, after all. Plans to sleep in. Watch Saturday morning cartoons. Chill.
Our teacher, a nun named Sister Mildred Marie, was trying to teach our elementary class something about anything. My eyes were glazed over like a fresh-made Krispy Kreme.
She might have been talking about social studies. Or history. If it was about math, I’m sure I wasn’t paying attention. I could never make the connection between being a radio D.J. (which I wanted to be) and Euclid. Although I did think Euclid might be a cool D.J. name: “Hey, everybody! It’s Kid Euclid! By request, here’s The Beach Boys!”
It might have been around 10 a.m. An upperclassman came bursting into the room right in the middle of Sister’s unremembered lesson.
“President Kennedy’s been shot!” The kid’s words hung in the air without any reaction from any of us – even Sister Mildred Marie.
“They just announced it on TV,” he said. And then left.
Silence prevailed in the classroom for long minutes.
Then Sister said, “OK. Everybody get on their knees and let’s start praying.” And so we did. After awhile, we stopped, sat back in our seats and just waited.
It didn’t seem like much time later, the same kid who’d brought the earlier bulletin came back in to announce that President Kennedy had died. We were just kids, but we knew that was bad – and some of us started to cry.
Sister suspended class for the day and we were dismissed.
I remember walking home with my friend, David. He was scared – and convinced that we were also in danger of being shot. He ducked behind buildings, crept below mailboxes – all the while sure we were under attack. I couldn’t convince him he was wrong. How was I supposed to know?
When I arrived home, I found my mom in tears. She ran to me and just hugged me for an unusually long time. I never forgot that.
My dad, who ran a retail business, closed his store for the day and came straight home. It felt like a death in the family. The president, like us, was Catholic after all.
The next couple of days, our black-and-white TV never went off. We saw the astounding live Jack Ruby shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, the casket lying in state, the burial at Arlington. It is seared into the memory forever.
But there is a certain – and oddly – happy memory about it, too.
Our family shared the whole experience. Our parents comforted us, reassured us – and tried, as best they could, to explain all of it to us. And it really brought us close. It changed us as a family.
Surely my parents were faking their way through it much of the time – just like their parents likely did after Pearl Harbor – and just like my wife and I did with our own kids years later during 911.
At times like those, people look to you for wisdom.
And if you don’t have it, you gain it.
Someone once said it is easier to be wise for someone else than ourselves.
That’s a very wise observation.
Pat Cashman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at his podcast at peculiarpodcast.com. Pat’s new weekly local comedy sketch show, “the 206,” airs following SNL on KING 5.