Second-graders in Mrs. Schutz’s class at Meadowbrook Elementary School were doing jumping jacks in the new building’s cafeteria-gymnasium the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
Principal Donald Parker, for whom the school is named today, flipped on the intercom, and an urgent, confusing radio broadcast filled the building. Gym class was finished. We were sent back to our classroom while the news of something terrible streamed in.
Mrs. Schutz was as tough as they come. She had perfected the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, that grab of shoulder soft tissue, long before Mr. Spock became a cultural icon. Her squeeze was most often practiced on a scrawny new kid, newly bespectacled, who just wouldn’t shut up. When she applied it, I crumpled as if Tasered, well before that contraption was invented. A disciplinarian, no doubt, but Mrs. Schutz was a good teacher, too.
When word came over the loudspeaker from Dallas that President John F. Kennedy had died, Mrs. Schutz began to cry. Not knowing what else to do, we all cried, too.
That’s how the real world came crashing into the lives of 6- and 7-year-olds 50 years ago. Yes, we remembered when astronaut John Glenn circled the globe in a space capsule, but that was a triumph. This was tragedy, inexplicable and indelible. We would always know where we were that moment.
Could it really be 50 years ago? Those black-and-white images are etched in memory. LBJ, sworn in on an aircraft with Jackie and Lady Bird by his side. Lee Harvey Oswald’s contorted face at the very instant Jack Ruby shot him dead. John-John, himself now gone for years, in a coat and shorts, saluting the caisson.
We remember the common time stamps of our lives, when Sen. Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were shot, when Nixon quit, when the Challenger blew up. The deaths of Elvis and Princess Diana. Sept. 11, powerfully. In this community, unspeakably, Jan. 8.
Now, those events provide context.
When Nov. 22, 1963, arrived, the baby boom had been fully detonated in our family. There were three of us kids, 6, 5 and 2, living in a new house in what was then rural Connecticut. Everyone was young. Mom was 25, away from her family, in a place where she knew almost no one. She watched sadly on a floor-standing black-and-white TV, ironing curtains, when JFK’s procession rolled by.
Dad was in a new job and went to school at night. Nov. 22, 1963, was his 26th birthday. For a few years, until the memory faded, we didn’t celebrate it that day. Mom lives in that same house today. So much has happened between then and now.
If you ever get to Dallas, go to the Sixth Floor Museum, the Texas School Book Depository building from which Oswald fired his shots. The room looks just as it did then, with boxes strewn about. The TV tape of Walter Cronkite rolls over and over. When Cronkite reads the news that JFK has died, and removes his eyeglasses, and pauses for a split second, you shudder. Powerful, even a half-century later.
Oswald couldn’t have made the shot today. The trees above Dealey Plaza were small that Nov. 22. Now, they block the street view from the window. Trees grow. Time moves, and our lives with it.