Nov. 22, 1963 I was in the fall of my senior year in high school. I went to a small Catholic high school in an old building that was shared with a grade school. We had our school play in the same gym/auditorium/whatever room as the grade school. The day my class graduated, the buildings were condemned and the next year the school was in a new facility with it’s own gym and cafeteria and football practice field – something you don’t tend to have when your highs school is in the middle of the city.
We were in final rehearsal for our school play – either Carnival or Carousal – I can never really remember. What I do remember is that Friday was our opening night and Saturday was our closing night. Since the nuns had already rented the costumes and sets for the production, even a presidential assassination wouldn’t stop us.
We were called into the auditorium and gathered as a school – from freshmen to seniors. I think we all thought there was going to be some push to sell more tickets or something like that. This was in the day before cell phones and god knows no one was allowed to be walking around with a radio on. We were at school and that was where all our focus was to be placed – no extraneous distractions allowed.
That’s when the priest who was our principal came in and the look on his face told us something horrible had happened. Being good little Catholics, most of us thought another pope had died. But that wasn’t it. Turns out, our president has been killed.
Now you have to understand that my generation had not known tragedy up until then – certainly not tragedy that touched us so personally. But this was President Kennedy – a hero to Catholics all over America. He got to be president even though he was Catholic. Back in the day, that was a true miracle. And now he was gone.
I don’t know what was worse. Getting the news and then being told school was canceled for the rest of the day and we should all go home or the fact that when I got home, my parents were visibly shaken. And that simply didn’t happen in my world. In my world we ducked under desks to escape nuclear war. We accepted that there were starving babies in China it was our responsibility as good Catholics to feed and convert. We prayed for the souls of communists behind that invisible iron curtain. And we believed that nothing bad could ever happen hear, in America, like it did in all those other countries.
This was the first time I learned that, in fact, bed things did happen in America. Very bad things. Things that shook up my parents. Things that caused the nuns and priests at our school to cry in front of us. Things that sank a country in mourning as two young children saluted the father they would barely remember.
In fact, everything in America stopped except for one thing. That’s right, our school play. Did I mention that the school had already paid to rent the costumes and scenery? Did I mention that I went to a small Catholic high school that didn’t have much money? Did I mention that in a world where most adults remembered a childhood marked by the Great Depression that you never wasted money?
So yeah, we went ahead with our play that weekend. I even wrote an essay about it that won first prize in some state contest. I still have it. In fact, if we’re lucky, I’ll figure out a way to add it to this post. Wish me good luck. Meanwhile, in case anyone asks, for me that day was a demarcation that separated my fairly innocent childhood of the fifties into the tumultuous time that was the late sixties.
I am still saddened to this day by the thought of what might have been.