Like the title says, I was 10, 10 years old and in the fourth grade. Though for many a year I recalled being in the third grade when the President was assassinated. Perhaps because I found third grade to be the most traumatic grade* of my childhood, I conflated the two. At that time I have to say that there had been very little in the way of traumatic experiences in my young life.
No pets had passed away yet, often a child's first experience with death, all four grandparents were still alive and well. All my other relations were still alive and no friends had yet to meet the Grim Reaper. I was spared that experience as a child, thank God. (I am all too familiar with Death these days.)
I remember being in class, there was some sort of commotion in the hallway, our teacher left the room (a lady whose name escapes me, and yes, that bothers me), only to return moments later with that sad, serious look which grown-ups get when something has gone very wrong. At that point she announced that school was cancelled for the rest of the day and that the buses would be there soon and that those that walked to school (uphill, both ways) could proceed home at that time.
Our natural joy at being dismissed from school was immediately quelled when someone, probably one of the girls, asked why school was being dismissed so early. (Someone always has to ask why.) Well, the teacher obviously was very distraught but managed to tell us, in a very serious grown-up voice, "Someone has shot the President." (He might have still been alive when we were told, I don't remember anyone saying that he was dead.)
While we weren't all that attuned to world affairs and the like, we did know who and what the President was. We also knew that he was a very young man (or so a grandfather or two had said) and no doubt too young to be dead. We also figured that "the bad guys" had killed him. In those days the only bad guys were the Communists. Of the Russian and Chinese varieties. Yes, there were other Communists but those were the big two. Every other Commie rat bastard in the world answered to them. Or so our Dads told us.
So we headed home. I remember walking home with a couple of other kids but can't remember exactly which other kids those were. Maybe it was the traumatic, scary nature of that day or perhaps my memories have faded. At any rate I do have one crystal clear memory of that day. We found a light bulb next to the road. An odd place for a light bulb indeed, but there it was. I decided that it would be a good thing to throw onto the sidewalk. Why? I dunno, it's one of those XY chromosome things no doubt.
Well, throw it I did, not surprisingly it broke, with a rather loud pop, which for just a moment sounded like a gunshot. (C'mon, this was Vermont in the old days, we knew what gunfire sounded like.) But still, that loud pop on that particular day made us feel that we were being perhaps a bit too flippant. So we marched the rest of the way in silence.
The rest of that time was a blur. I remember seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby, though not live, the event occurred a few moments before I came into the room. My parents were so shocked that no one thought to shoo my brothers and I out of the room.
I remember a solemn parade with a very young John Jr. saluting his father's casket. I remember the skirl of the pipes and the muffled drums. The marching footsteps, the jingle of the horses' harness.
I remember a horse with no rider, empty boots reversed in the stirrups. That horse being led by a ramrod straight soldier.
While we had experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis not quite a year earlier, war was something abstract, I remember my parents being frightened but this event, this murder of a President of the United States frightened them even more. Was this the first move in an attack on the United States? Those were the sort of rumors we heard back then.
Another thing I learned that day, though neither of my parents cared much for President Kennedy and neither had voted for him, they were still shocked and saddened at his death, Though they disagreed with him politically, he was still the President. The President of all we Americans.
Fifty-three years ago. Parts of that day and the subsequent days are as clear as if it was yesterday. Much is now shrouded in the mists of time. Still and all, it was a watershed event, much like Pearl Harbor was for my parents, much as 9-11 is for my generation and my kids' generation.
To think that my parents experienced all three. Mind boggling.
America changed on that day. For better or worse I cannot be the judge. Personally, I think it was the former. That may have been because of my youth. But I do know that JFK's successor dragged us into Vietnam. I also know that one of LBJ's closest advisers in that war was a fellow named McNamara, who had been appointed by JFK.
Still and all, the nation changed. Those were grim times for the generation ahead of mine.
Fifty-three years ago.
When I was ten.
* My third grade teacher, Miss McClain, was about a billion years old. She would fill the 15 foot wide blackboard with arithmetic expressions, which had to be finished that very day. Even if one had to stay after school. Though I grew to somewhat enjoy arithmetic, I have ever since disliked blackboards and the smell of chalk. Traumatic to a nine year old, though in hindsight, not very. Of course, Miss McClain was probably only in her sixties. So now I myself am a billion years old. Yes, I do remember the dinosaurs. Vaguely.