I was coming out of a journalism class at Marquette University when a couple of classmates bounded up the stairs shouting, “The President has been shot!”
I don’t think they said the word “dead,” or if they did I wasn’t going to believe it without knowing more. The students in question were editors of the campus newspaper, and they were headed for the closet where a venerable teletype machine clattered out breaking news. As soon as new information came across the wire, they would be able to rip the story off the machine. But I didn’t wait around.
I left early Friday evening for a religious retreat, where we spent the weekend in prayer and silent meditation. By the time I got back to my dorm Sunday, Lyndon Johnson was president, Lee Harvey Oswald was dead, and Marquette had decided to close early for Thanksgiving. So I boarded a Greyhound for an overnight 14-hour trip home. The rest of the world had been watching television, absorbing heart-wrenching scenes and shocking details, and dealing with their thoughts and emotions. But I had been in two alternate universes—a retreat and a bus trip.
When I got home, the television was on. I saw JFK’s casket lying in state as people filed by in tears. I watched the funeral, learned the word cortege, was haunted by the riderless horse. I saw Jackie, Bobby, and Teddy striding down the street looking grimly determined and, I thought, angry. And why shouldn’t they be? Within days, Life magazine brought out a special issue; I rushed to buy it and I paged through it again and again, soaking in the photos. At a church bazaar the Saturday after Thanksgiving I heard some women talking about Jackie—how she had been so brave, how she hadn’t seemed to cry, how when you looked at the pictures you could see her sadness and you knew she had indeed cried. They were relieved to know she was real.
Through it all, for days and weeks, it stayed with me, a sense that something was terribly wrong. I know now that it was grief, pure and simple. Grief for a president I didn’t appreciate until he was gone, grief for his family whose beauty could not protect them from tragic loss, and grief for our nation, which no longer seemed so shiny and promising.
At the time, I thought something had changed. Today I would say Camelot was an illusion, that ugliness and privilege and corruption and violence were present behind the gauzy curtains and JFK’s death merely showed us what was possible. Pearl Harbor had been a shock for my parents’ generation, and the attacks of 9/11 would have a similar effect on my daughter’s generation. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was profoundly sad.
Today as I write this I recall details from 1963 and I recall how I was again brought to tears just a few years ago by exhibits and films at the Sixth Floor Museum at the old Texas Book Depository. Fifty years after John Kennedy’s assassination, I am feeling that same grief again. I am wishing that my grandchildren would never have to learn that the unthinkable can indeed happen right here in the USA. And I know that wish will not come true.