November 22nd…“WHERE AND WHAT WERE YOU DOING ON THE INFAMOUS DAY WHEN PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY WAS ASSASSINATED IN 1963?”
As an escapism for this elementary boy, I gazed out of the upstairs windows of my 4th Grade classroom and towards the branched tips of the tall majestic shade trees that bordered our school property. There were still a few stubborn remnants of Maple leaves clinging to their branch stems, as if to feign still having life within them which, in reality, was all but gone. Their dried destiny awaited one more frigid November gust of Minnesota wind to rip them from their moorings and cast them to the piles of their peers waiting below.
My first eight times of life around the calendar saw each November 22nd to be cold. But this ninth time around this particular November day (which was November 22nd, 1963) brought with it an ominous frigidity that sustained a quivering to the very bones of this little Norwegian farm boy. There was something extra chilling in the air that day, and I was soon to discover that a facet of that day, once revealed, was to prove that it would be more than just the weather that would be chilling.
To set the stage, our beloved Grade School, being of classic Americana construction, had been built in the 1920’s as the first High School of our fair community. The wooden floors throughout the two-story structure had their own language of creaks and pops as hundreds of young adults and then children had tread over those wooden ways in the decades leading up to that same building now housing our Kindergarten through Sixth Grade classes. Beautiful, small pane windows in the classrooms allowed for lovely natural lighting and the old fashioned classroom doors were adorned with small pane windows, as well. The multiplicity of so much wood in the building’s construction allowed us to hear, not only the cacophony of our own classroom’s educational goings on, but you couldn’t help but notice footsteps in the halls, too, of either a single person, or a herd of kids coming.
The normal day of my classroom routine was about to change abruptly. Down those wooded, echoing hallways, that I alluded to earlier, came some heavy adult footsteps in an almost thunderous cadence till they reached Mrs. Leland’s 4th Grade classroom door. Those overweight footsteps and hard, matronly-heeled shoes belonged to our Principal, Mrs. Ellen King. Mrs. King grabbed for the wobbly door knob of our multi-windowed, classroom door. As she gave it a pull, the very hinges creaked eerily on their hinge pins and every student spun in their desk to see who came in. Mrs. King’s portly face was pale with emotion as she steadied herself on the frame of that old wooden door. Her utterance of these words stunned us all, “Mrs. Leland, boys and girls, our President, the honorable Mr. John F. Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas, Texas!” With that horrific proclamation still sinking in to our little hearts and minds, she then continued on her morbid journey to each and every classroom until all the staff and students knew of the unfathomable occurrence that had just befallen our country’s highest leader.
Now even at the tender age of only nine years, I was already quite cognizant of President Kennedy’s heroic service during World War II. As the Skipper of the PT 109 boat, Lieutenant Kennedy had valiantly guided his men to safety on a nearby island after their PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat had been cut in two by a giant Japanese destroyer ship. Having lost only two crew members (killed at impact with the Japanese ship), Kennedy’s tenacity and wit kept spirits high among the remaining crewmen as they managed to survive, not be captured by the enemy all around them, and eventually were rescued by friendly natives and allies.
Little nine year old boys, and this one in particular, tended to take life quiet literally as it happened around them. In my immature schoolboy mind, I surmised that if someone shoots our President, that must mean we’re going to WAR……….with someone!!! As our teacher, Mrs. Leland, led our class to the cafeteria for lunch that day, I remember stiffly marching, as if I were a soldier. In my little boy ways, I was prepared to fight for and seek vengeance against whoever would have the audacity to perpetrate such an unspeakable deed against our dear President and nation.
As adults, we oftentimes are guilty of not respecting the intuition, awareness and insightful abilities of children. I was still too young to discern what the differences were between Democrats and Republicans, but this I DID know. I liked the man, John F. Kennedy! I had watched him conduct many interviews on our television set, during his short tenure in office as our President, and I sensed a true heart who loved this country deeply. Altruistic innocence of a child? Maybe. I just knew, in my heart, that this good man’s life had touched mine with his willingness to serve our nation at her highest office. Whatever his human failings were, President Kennedy was one of the heroes of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.