I was a seventeen year old high school senior getting ready for opening night of my high school play the day Kennedy was shot. I recently found the paper I wrote that year about those events. Kennedy’s death was a defining moment in American life whether you liked him or not. It marked the end of the 50s and the beginning of a decade that, for better or for worse, would redefine America.
Here, edited for length, is some of what I wrote then. The piece starts as we are finishing final rehearsal for the play.
Just before we began the finale our vice-principal entered the auditorium. We thought he was going to wish us good luck. But his face was clouded and troubled. He whispered a few words to the director. The director turned to us. His words – “The President has been shot!”
Before we had time to fully comprehend all that had occurred, the auditorium was filled with students who had come to pray a rosary for him. As we took our seats, our principal entered and stepped up to the microphone on the stage. He was, as usual, a great imposing figure of a man. Tall, straight, a former football player, he gives one a feeling of strength and solidity. Bet even he seemed strangely stooped and broken. In a few moments we discovered why. With a dull, flat voice he announced, “We will now recite a rosary for the repose of the soul of our late President, John F. Kennedy.”
Now the silence was broken by muffled sobs and the responses to the rosary were shaky and tearful. Father himself found it difficult to control the emotion stirring within him.
After the rosary we were dismissed. The director asked the cast members to get their books and then return. As soon as the cast had assembled again, the director spoke. He said it would cost the school almost three thousand dollars to put off the play because the costumes and so on were rented from New York. We had to put it on that night and the next two nights as planned.
The bus I took home from school was strangely quiet. Though filled with teenagers, it possessed the quiet of a funeral home. Tears rolled silently down some people’s cheeks as if they were crying but the pain was too deep and too cutting for relief.
As I dressed to return to school after dinner, I found myself thinking. “Is this right? Should I be doing a play on this of all nights?” I desperately wanted to stay home, to lock myself in my room away from all the newspapers, TV, and radios. I wanted to lie on my bed and think; think of all that had happened and of all that was to happen. But as that trite old saying declares – the show must go on.
I was only on the stage four times but each time I had a few moments to observe the audience. The house was packed. Yet it seemed more packed with robots than with people. They clapped in the right places, laughed in the right places, and looked appropriately horrified when Paul slapped Lily. But somehow I felt it was merely reflex. They were only there because a relative was in the play. They only reacted because unconsciously they knew they should.
When the night finally ended I felt as though a century had passed since morning. I felt ten years older and twenty years wiser. My sleep was invaded by pictures of the day’s events which passed in horrifying succession; the roses in the empty car, the people crying outside the hospital, the blood stains on her suit, the drawn, ghastly look on his brother’s face. I could not escape these nightmares no matter how I twisted and turned. Deep down I knew I never would be able to escape them. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, these impressions would still remain.
It’s been forty years since I wrote those words and they are as true now as they are then. I don’t think America was ever as innocent as the illusion of the 50s would have us believe, but that day, even the illusion was stripped away. The 60s had begun and there would be no illusion of peace or tranquility in them.