Nineteen years ago today, shots rang out in Dallas and President John F. Kennedy was shockingly, suddenly dead. How well do we remember Nov. 22, 1963? In detail so vivid that I wish you could have been looking over my shoulder for the last few days as I read your recollections. It has been an emotional experience.
In your letters, you readers proved that Americans not only haven't forgotten 11/22/63, but are anxious and proud to remember. I'm very grateful to every one of the hundreds of readers who sat down, pen in hand, to relive that wrenching day. I only wish I could print every letter I received. They're that good.
Because you have been so eloquent, one column can't do your memories justice. So I've decided to devote the next three to you readers, and to the president you remember.
The purpose? As many of you said in your letters, the memory impels us to ask again, as JFK urged, what we can do for our country, and not the other way around.
Let's start with kids.
Teresa Kerley of Bethesda guessed that I'd be "somewhat surprised by how many of your 'where were you' recollections will be from those who were very young that day in November of 1963."
You're a good guesser, Teresa. More than half the responses I received were from people who were younger than 12 on 11/22/63.
That amazed me at first. But Monica Wagner of Northwest made me think again. She recalls rushing home from school and discovering her mother in tears. "It was the first time I ever saw my mother cry," Monica says. A kid doesn't forget things like that.
Other kids-at-the-time remember the scene as they heard the news.
Sandy Corbett of Laurel was in a junior high school gym class, playing volleyball. A teacher came onto the court and announced the shooting. "I remember closing my eyes and saying a prayer that he would survive (and almost getting bonked on the head with a volleyball while doing so)," Sandy writes.
Constance Hamilton was a sixth grader attending a safety patrol meeting in the school cafeteria. As always, refreshments were served. However, the meeting was interrupted by news of the Kennedy shooting.
"I didn't realize I had been crying until I looked down and saw that my uneaten cookies had gotten soggy from my tears," Constance writes.
Some kids were too young to remember. But their mothers weren't. Barbara Fraize of Reston writes:
"My first-born was five weeks old the day John F. Kennedy was shot. After the initial shock, I looked pityingly at this child and wondered how this senseless killing would affect his future. I held him very close that day . . . . "
The events of 11/22/63 seem to have landed especially hard on Catholics, and on Americans who were overseas that day.
Dozens of Catholics echoed the memory of Marion Heidary of Silver Spring. In her school, the mother superior made the fateful announcement. "Then we all got to our knees on the cold floor and prayed," Marion recalls.
For Americans abroad, one experience seemed universal: the number of non-Americans who offered condolences. For example, Joyce van Meer of Chevy Chase was in Holland when JFK died. Her phone rang constantly with calls from "near strangers who just wanted to let an American know how sorry they were."
Television was the way many readers got the news. More than a dozen readers remember Walter Cronkite breaking into "As the World Turns" to deliver the awful bulletin. Several people say that since that day, they can't hear an announcer say, "We interrupt this program . . . " without getting chills.
The best TV story from 11/22/63 comes from Jo Paoletti of Adelphi.
Jo's mother was a nurse working at a local hospital. She and another nurse were huddled in front of a television, watching intently, when a third nurse burst into the room.
"Change the channel!" she demanded. "He's still alive on Channel 2!"
As Jo says, "If it were only that simple . . . .