Novembers in Georgia always can be characterized with the color gray. Of course, there are sometimes bright colorful sunny days, more like October, and then there can be frigid days more representative of January, but mostly Georgia, November days are full of gray.
In the fall of 1963, one of my two, distinct memories of fourth grade was suffering from a type of childhood anxiety, perhaps brought on by my mother's returning to work – a type of separation fear. Scared of all kinds of things that I thought could happen without my mother's being there, I'd wake up on school morning with a “tummy ache” and tell my parents that I did not want to go to school.
The blogger and her sister in Falls Church, Virginia, summer 1963
My parents did not let us stay out of school with such a flimsy and un-diagnosed malaise, but they were concerned about the frequency of my complaints and took turns, if they could, of helping by walking me to school on those days. Other times since they both worked, they elicited the help of close neighbor Pat Gable, whose daughter Marcie was my best friend, to help me get over those hurdles as once I got to school, they both knew I seem to adjust and be fine.
One morning, I dressed, sick at my stomach, but delayed by my illness, and left late to go to school. I pretended that I had gone, but instead, hid in a neighbor's yard, let some time pass, and returned to Pat's house and told her that “I had been sent home.” Pat kept me at her house until my parents got home from work. Since it was discovered somehow that I hadn't shown up at school at all, had told a bold face lie, of course, I was punished accordingly, but they were concerned about this new development in my well-being.
At one point, they considered enrolling me in the school district where Daddy was employed, and perhaps this pushed me to work through that anxiety. I just know I suffered a lot the first months of the fall of 1963, but somehow managed to overcome that anxiety and that problem did not return for the rest of my elementary school years.
My fourth grade teacher was Mrs.Gibson, a middle-aged dark haired woman who had taught fourth grade at Perkerson Elementary for decades. Kind but formidable, she challenged her students to memorize passages of historical documents, poems, and state capitals, do long division, study the battles of the Civil War, diagram sentences, and read. We respectfully loved her and tried not to draw attention to ourselves with any type of overt misbehavior. We stealthily passed notes, drew boy's names on our palms with ink, and whispered only when we were sure of no discovery.
Early in the afternoon of November, 22, 1963, we sat in Mrs. Gibson's class waiting for the school day to be over. It was Friday, Thanksgiving holidays were just around the corner, and we were itching for the weekend. We stared at the minute hand on the big black and white clock on the wall and listened as it loudly ticked off the seconds. As we tapped our pencils, fidgeted in our wooden, shellacked top school desks, and pretended to complete whatever assignment Mrs. Gibson had given, the door opened and Van Wing, a seventh grader and audio visual aide in the library, swung opened the classroom door and blurted out, “President Kennedy has been shot.” I don't know if he was supposed to deliver something to our classroom, how he knew this information, or what, but he announced it with confidence to our fourth grade classroom as if he had been sent on this errand. Perhaps, he had -- as this was way before televisions were in school rooms -- all we had were film projectors, record players, and the occasional radio.
Immediately the classroom buzzed, my friend Jackie, oblivious to the rules of democracy, leaned over and whispered to me, “If he dies, will Richard Nixon be president now?”, and a shocked Mrs. Gibson shooed Van back to his job and restored the class to order as best she could.
Van,who lived directly behind us on Bader Avenue, had a reputation for being wild, but even Mrs. Gibson knew that Van wouldn't be bold enough to make that kind of announcement without it being based on good information. The rest of that school day, the little time that was left, is a blur to me. It was 2:00 Atlanta time when President Kennedy died in Dallas --- we had probably only forty-five more minutes of academics.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution papers wishing to get out the latest news delayed its evening printing. My brothers both had paper routes, and since they had to wait for the late delivery, arrived home way after dark, exhausted, but having sold out of all their extra papers, a highly unusual occurrence.
The weight of what had happened began to settle in our home. Normally a boisterous bunch, egging each other on, fighting, and getting on each other's nerves, each of us tried to process the news – I can only imagine the difference in how we reacted – my oldest brother Hunter a ninth grader, Margaret a seventh grader, and Kenneth a fifth grader – we were in such different places of maturity.
My parents, who were strict about television viewing, allowed the small set in our den to run constantly with the coverage. We stayed up late, all huddled about the screen like it gave off heat, and watched President Kennedy's body returned to Washington by plane and noted the grisly image of the dark stains on Jackie Kennedy's suit – even in black and white it frightened me.
Greatly affected by it all, I worried that assassins ran free and one waited in the bushes outside my house to kill me or someone I loved. I lay awake that night playing the day's events over and over in my memory – something I would do for months to come.
On Saturday morning, I played with my friends outside --- an overcast but not cold, gray day --- we rode our bikes, played games, and occasionally referenced the American tragedy; in our childhood minds, we tried to figure out what it could mean for our lives -- our president being shot and killed.
On Sunday, while we attended church, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. We heard the news on the radio on our ride home, and my parents turned to the television news coverage. That grainy black and white tumultuous and chaotic filmed scene played over and over until it was pretty much etched in my mind. That night I worried about who would be killed next. It was a scary time.
My childhood world had been shattered, and my parents knowing that the event had historical significance, called me in from outside to watch any coverage of the events leading up to his funeral. The scenes of the long lines outside the capitol as his body lay in state, the cortege and the flag draped wagon taking his body to the cathedral for the funeral, and then it again as it carried his body to Arlington Cemetery to be interred – that rider-less horse leading the way.
When the magazines of Life, Look, and Newsweek arrived in the mail in the days afterward, the color pictures of Jackie Kennedy's blood spattered pink suit made me queasy, but with my morbid curiosity aroused, I stared at frozen image after frozen image of those tragic days.
Those were sad, gray days of November, and the pall of what happened weighed on the upcoming holidays for that year including Christmas.
Kenneth, Margaret, the blogger, and Hunter, Lynchburg, Virginia, Christmas 1963
For me, the year 1963 will always dredge up that time of upheaval in my childhood when I felt like something firm, something perfect, something safe had slipped away.
Thankful when the calendar date changed to 1964, I quit scribbling the month, numbered day, and 1963, at the top of my school papers, and I knew we would forge ahead --- somehow leaving those troublesome days and memories behind us. But, we did and we didn't.