I find it strange that I can remember something that happened fifty years ago. Surely I’m not old enough. When President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963, I was second grade student at F.P. Caillet Elementary School in Dallas, Texas.
It seems so long ago, but I remember the moment I heard the news. It seems seared in my memory, and yet somehow dream-like, too. I was outside in the schoolyard. Was it recess? I remember standing by the fence near the street where we would leave at the end of the school day. But who knows if this is a true memory or not. A boy came up to me and said, “President Kennedy was shot.” I looked at him and said—in my little girl know-it-all voice, “That’s not very funny.” Back inside, an announcement over the loudspeaker confirmed his not-at-all-funny statement. I never thought about this before, but now I wonder now how the boy had heard the news. There were no cell phones or computers then. No Facebook posts or Twitter tweets. I believe the sixth graders had gone to see the president that day. Perhaps one of the teachers called the school, and the boy overheard the news. I guess I’ll never know.
All of the recent news coverage has made me reflect upon my own past at that time, and at the vagaries of memory. I remember the announcement, but I do not remember being picked-up from school that day. Certainly, the housekeeper who picked-up my younger sister and me from school, and then later my parents most have been discussing the tragedy. I remember my not-quite-seven-year-old self being confused, and my parents sad and angry. I realized something enormous and irrevocable had occurred. But then—because we did not actually understand– my little sister and I wanted to watch our usual TV shows instead of all the news coverage. We were annoyed, and probably annoying, because our shows were not on.
Like most Americans, I’ve seen photographs and film clips of the day, of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby, but I don’t actually remember seeing the events unfold. My memories are the media. What do I remember, and what do I simply think I remember?
Memory is strange. Some moment you think you’ll remember forever disappears from your brain. But I remember what I and others around me ate at various times and places.
I wonder how the memories of people in the past might be different from our own? The telegraph helped to spread word of President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, but the news still took time to reach many people in remote areas of the United States (and two weeks to reach Europe.) Now events occur, and people all over the world are informed immediately. Do we remember the event, or do we remember the photographs, the videos, the tweets?
I’ve never asked my parents or older siblings what they remember of that day in Dallas. It’s too late to ask my dad, but I can ask my mom. Both of my parents have told me about when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. My daughters remember the events of 9/11—a day that forever changed their worlds. All these events are tragedies, similar in that, as tragedies, they involve human death and suffering–all different and all incomparable.
I have not been back to Dallas since we moved when I was in seventh grade. In my head, the area and people remain as they were decades ago, in my memory.
Update: I just learned last night that on the day of the assassination, my dad was out of town. One of the men who worked for my parents had gone into downtown Dallas on a business errand for my mom. His car was stopped and searched. My mom doesn’t remember how she learned of JFK’s assassination, but she vividly recalls seeing Ruby shoot Oswald on TV, as she was about to turn it off because our family was going out. She yelled to my father that something had happened. . .