Kage Baker was a graduate of Catholic school – “Twelve years in the navy blue,” she used to tell people. It was a big deal 40 or 50 years ago. We scrapped in the streets with the public school kids (not a bad word there, but believe me – it was an epithet) like Capulets and Montagues, an activity enlivened by our being able to use dirty words in Latin back then. Or any words in Latin, and we could claim they were dirty …
This day in 1963, though, I remember straggling home mid-afternoon and utterly ignoring the public school kids also headed home early. We were all red-eyed, all scared; many of us were crying. President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Houston, Texas.
Going to a Catholic school, and Kennedy the first Catholic President, it seemed especially devastating to us. We were all praying while the news came slowly, fitfully over the radio. No 24/7 news cycle in 1963, Dear Readers! No news stations, even. The news came to our school over the radio in the nurse’s office, and was then confirmed by a phone call to the Rectory where Father O’Brien had a television set. Sister Pauline, the principal, confiscated some 8th grade boy’s book-sized transistor and set it up in the office to listen, dispatching runners to the classrooms as news came trickling in.
My teacher, Sister Lucy, was an iron-hard old Bostonion lady. She even talked like a Kennedy. She absolutely forbade hysteria – we went over the rules for the loss of a Chief Executive and prayed silently while we waited. Kage’s teacher had them on their knees praying the rosary, I think – not so stern and staunch as Sister Lucy, who kept us calm until the news of the President’s death came in. Then school was summarily dismissed, and we all went home to our crying mothers …
Like any American who was alive and sentient that day, I remember most of the details of the hours surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10, just old enough to realize what a horror show we were seeing; it hadn’t been that long since all our dads had been digging bomb shelters and worrying about Cuba. I remember looking at the artist’s conception in Life of the proposed shelters in the upright pillars of the freeways … I remember wondering if now the war would start, with Kennedy dead.
Walter Cronkite seemed to narrating the entire world for the next week, a constant sonorous soundtrack like God above the clouds. Weird day. Bad day. Walking home, too scared and sad to even cook snooks at the enemy kids from Atwater Elementary. Wondering how the world could even accommodate so horrible a tragedy.
None of us had any idea what the world had waiting for us.