I sat looking out at the green oats swaying in the wind and rippling up the hillside, turning it into a sea of grass. The sky was an unbroken sheet of grayness, which would normally have created a bad mood, but tonight was the dance, one of the few we would get to enjoy in the course of our school year. Finally, something to look forward to. Still, the cafeteria study hall dragged on. Must have been about 50 or 60 of us sitting there. Some were even studying. Most of us just looked out the window or at the clock willing the day to end.
Then the intercom came to life, a very rare occurrence at our school. It was the principal: “We have been informed that the president has been shot”. I don’t think we really understood what he meant until a familiar voice from TV came over the intercom. The newsman repeated what the principal had said and then explained what had happened, as far as he knew. “The president was traveling in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas, at approximately 12:30 Central Standard Time, when shots rang out. The president appeared to be hit and the car he was riding in sped off to the nearest hospital. We have no information at this time about his condition.”
Then the bell rang. Some of the girls were crying as we lurched out of our seats and made our way to our next class, shuffling along in a daze.
My class was geometry with Mr Fetterman. He was a tall, thin man with a small mustache. Like most of our teachers, and our fathers, he had been in the war, though, of course, like our fathers, he never talked about it. We had heard that he had been hit in the elbow with a piece of shrapnel. This may be why he could consistently draw perfect circles on the board when explaining problems to the class.
In the midst of all the confusion, he began quite a different class than we were used to. “I am going to explain to you about the Zero Factor. Every president elected in a zero year since 1840 has died in office”. With that he started writing a list of dates in a column on the board. Then he turned to ‘1840’ and said, “In 1840, William Henry Harrison was elected president. He stood in the rain for three hours delivering his inaugural address and died of pneumonia a month later.
Just then the newsman’s voice interjected: “We have news that the president has definitely been shot and is now at the Parkland Memorial Hospital”.
Mr Fetterman continued to methodically work his way down the column, writing the name of the president as he described how he died. “1860, Lincoln was elected and, as you know, he was assassinated in 1865. Then in 1880, Garfield was elected and he too was assassinated.” In 1900, Mc Kinley was elected. The following year, he also was assassinated.”
All these assassinations. Of course, we had studied our history and knew about them, but now began to see them in a new, too real context. Almost all of us still had two parents, alive and well, either at work or at home today. But here was the president, whom we all knew through television, lying, possibly dying, at this very moment in far off Dallas. If presidents were not safe, what about our parents? What about us?
“In 1920, Harding was elected. He died three years later, apparently of a heart attack. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. He died in 1945, just before the war ended, of a cerebral hemorrhage”.
Then the familiar, but now dreaded voice announced: “President John F Kennedy has died of gunshot wounds at approximately 1 PM Central Standard Time”.
With that, Mr Fetterman wrote the president’s name by the date, 1960. The crying increased and the sense of loss and confusion permeated the classroom. The last hour of the day went by in a fog. As we finally made our way to the buses to take us home, someone asked, “Does this mean there won’t be a dance tonight?”
No, there would be no dance that night. There would, of course, be other dances in our future. There would be college and love and marriage and children and the inevitable divorces, too. There would be other deaths as well, this time of those near and dear to us. But this death was a death we all shared in a very public way, and I think it may have affected us as individuals and as a country more than we will ever know.
As for me, there are still times when I hear “Hail to the Chief’ playing, and for a split second think I will see him coming down the steps of Air Force One or on TV, still young and still alive. Or maybe I am unconsciously wishing myself to the past, when I was young and so many more of my family and friends were alive.