November Days of Drums

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Enlisted military men carry the casket of John F. Kennedy up the center steps of the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 24, 1963. A sailor follows with presidential flag. An honor guard lines the steps.   (AP Photo)
Enlisted military men carry the casket of John F. Kennedy up the center steps of the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 24, 1963. A sailor follows with presidential flag. An honor guard lines the steps. (AP Photo)

Friday afternoon in my upstate New York hometown, around 2 p.m. I was a drummer in the junior high school band and after lunch in the cafeteria went to a rehearsal of the entire percussion section. A couple of bare light bulbs illuminated the stage; the rest of the auditorium was pitch black. Our teacher tapped his baton in time against the top of a music stand as we loudly banged away, reading the sheet music in front of us, the loud noise bouncing around the empty hall.

Suddenly, the teacher waved for us to stop. The principal was making an announcement on the public address system, his voice booming from the speaker hanging at the back of the auditorium. The sound of our drums continued to echo as out of the darkness we heard him say, “John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States…”

He paused for what seemed an eternity but was probably only a second or two, and in that moment, I thought the next thing he would say was that Kennedy had declared war, that he or the Russians had pushed the button. We were still living in constant nuclear anxiety, newscasts and nightmares filled with mushroom clouds and horror stories about what radiation could do to us. A mockup of a fallout shelter had been built on the courthouse lawn, we constantly were given civil defense brochures and sent into school hallways for duck-and-cover drills. Just a little more than a year before, we had seen Kennedy tell us about missiles in Cuba and warn that even if we won an atomic war with the Soviets, “the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouths.”

Instead, the principal announced what in the moment seemed even more unimaginable: that Kennedy was dead. No other details. The echo from the loudspeaker moved through the empty auditorium and blended with the last reverberations from our drums. We stood there on the stage, shocked, not knowing what to say. A few weeks before, my Halloween costume for my last trick-or-treat had been my Sunday suit, tie and a Kennedy mask. My mother had kept scrapbooks on Jackie Kennedy and had let me stay up late to watch the inaugural parties in January 1961. These random thoughts flashed through my head but then here’s the way one adolescent nerd’s mind works. At breakfast, I had seen a tiny item in the morning paper: Kennedy would be giving a lunchtime speech at the Trade Mart in Dallas. Steak would be served as the main entrée and one would be chosen at random for the president. Good grief, I thought for one befuddled moment, the president got a poison steak!

The bell rang to change classes. And as we walked we heard that Kennedy had been shot. One of the gym teachers was standing in the hall; she said she’d heard that Lyndon Johnson had been hit, too, and was on the operating table. As with any breaking news, it would take a while for the stories to sort themselves out.

I got to my next class – woodshop – but we weren’t there very long. Soon an announcement came to go home early, which offended the shop teacher, a perpetually cranky right-winger who thought we should finish the normal school day.

My friends and I walked home, taking the shortcut over the railroad tracks, walking down a slope and past the elementary and primary schools, both of them bursting with baby boomer kids just a little younger than us. For the rest of that Friday and the next three days, I would be glued to the television. My mother tried to get me to go with my father down to his store but I was adamant and inconsolable, only leaving the TV for meals and sleep. And church on Sunday. Coming home from the service, I clicked the set back on and moments later saw Jack Ruby gun down Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. Live.

It was all, as the poet Robert Lowell wrote at the time, “a moment of terror and passionate chaos.” Norman Mailer called it a “fissure in the national psyche.” More simply, seeing such things, especially at my age then, messes with your head, each of us in different ways. On the tenth anniversary, I was covering an assassination conference at Georgetown University for that late, lamented newspaper, The Washington Star. Most of the participants were my age, some a bit older, some more reasonable in their theories than others (outside, one of them would have his minions pick out likely “conspirators” as they walked by, push them against the wall of his white van and snap a Polaroid picture). No matter what, none would accept that Kennedy, now in death the charismatic hero of a fantasy America, could have been killed by a lone gunman. “If John Kennedy had been John Doe,” one of them insisted to me, “a coroner’s jury would have demanded considerably better proof than the Warren Commission got.”

By then, there had been other American assassinations: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X. But it was President Kennedy’s, fifty years ago this month, which began what The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik describes as “the postmodern suspicion that the more we see, the less we know.” The Warren Commission’s 26-volume report and an estimated 40,000 books about Kennedy later, many still doubt.

Nevertheless, as with everyone old enough to have been alive and sentient then, what I saw and heard those four days in November remains irrefutable and indelible. Television made that possible. But while many will recall the sound of muffled drums as Kennedy’s horse-drawn funeral caisson was moved through the streets of Washington, I’ll remember Friday, 2 p.m., and the echo of drums in a dark and empty school auditorium.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
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  • Juliet Begley

    I remember being ushered from the playground in South Pasadena, and several Kindergarten teachers huddled together weeping…..’The President is dead, he has been killed in Texas’, and so we were sent home, school closed early. I was 6 yrs old.

  • Sharon

    I, too, was a drummer in our junior high band in 1963. I, too, was glued to the tv for the next few days. Remembering those days. Seem so long ago, but also just like yesterday.

  • Carol Ann Fryer

    I was a sophomore in college and studying in the library before lunch. All of a sudden people were loudly running through the library. Some had transistor radios up to their ears. I was shocked when I found what had happened and left to find my boyfriend. He was in class and I waited outside. As the door opened I told the professor what I had heard and she announced it to everyone who left in silence. (As an aside: imagine today a professor believing that story and announcing it to the class without verifying it first).

  • Anonymous

    Third grade…we were sent home, too. We all went to chapel first, to pray for the president and probably also to give our parents time to come and get us. We were told only that the president had been shot, not that he died. My mother told me. We could have taken a cab or the bus home, but we walked 16 blocks, mostly in silence. I saw grown men and women crying on the street. Shops were closed or closing. It was a gray day, dark early. We never turned the television set off, even when all they were showing was the Capitol lit at night. I remember hearing my father and other adults talk about the United States becoming “a banana republic.” It was the first time I ever heard that phrase.

  • Charley

    I was ( ironically) in history class in Christian Brothers High School, in Sacramento California. I was a freshman. An announcement was made over the PA that JFK had been shot. We were asked for a moment of silence, then the whole school was asked to say the Our Father. I think that was the quietest day of that school year. School was cancelled for the rest of the day. As I walked back to the Dorms, I will admit that I did not know what to fee. As a Catholic, there was pride in JFK’s election, yet I never thought that was as important as the renewal we all felt in the country. Something ended that day that I do not think we have gotten back.

  • mytwocentsworth

    I was teaching my Grade 6 class in Toronto when we heard the news. In terrible shock, I did the only thing I could think of at the time, and led my class through the praying of the Rosary. It was the beginning of a painful journey of tears with the Kennedys, Americans and the rest of the world. He truly was a man with vision, a citizen of the world who inspired us with hope, even though he was not, officially, our President. A devastating time, indeed.

  • Deb

    If there is one book that can help us understand the likeliest story behind this act, to recognize how and why this issue is even more relevant today, and to help the body politic metabolize this huge toxin, that book is James Douglass’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

  • Anonymous

    I had just returned to Eastern Hills High School from the Hotel Texas, where our band had played “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail To The Chief” for President Kennedy, and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” for Jackie Kennedy. I was sitting alone in the school cafeteria, having a late lunch, and musing about what I had just experienced when the principal came over the school’s intercom. I cannot print what I felt, though, I’d like to.

  • P.Eaton

    I was in 7th grade in Phoenix, Arizona. I remember hearing about it after lunch. Every teacher and child that I remember looking at was crying. Or it may have appeared that way through my own tears. The sadness that came over the whole city, the whole of America was palpable. People of every color, religion, political belief cried, cried for 3 days. We have not been the same since. The birth of cynicism.

  • Uncle Jim

    High school sophomore in Jacksonville, Florida. Playing chess in study hall with John R. Claxton III.
    The announcement came over the school intercom. Some gasps and shocked faces, but it seemed that noone quite knew how to react to such a horrendous event.

  • Roland

    Always. In this country they became particularly malicious in the 1830s. A hundred years later they were always going for FDR’s neck. Remember all the violence unleashed against ordinary people. Fascism is a disease; fascists hate themselves and are driven to punish others.
    Roland

  • Anonymous

    Catholic school, 5th grade, announcement over the PA system. I was asked by my teacher to lead the rosary. This hit our school hard because he was the first Catholic president and we were so proud of him.

    Hit me personally, because when the President came to my city, my dad was a driver for his entourage and was the first to welcomed the president at the bottom of the stairs of Air Force One. After my dad introduced himself President commented how good it was being welcomed by an Irishman. My dad still remembers that handshake at the bottom of those stairs, like it was yesterday and he is 97 today.

  • ivorymx

    My recollections similar to M. Winship’s: Jr. High School, in Bethesda,
    MD. It was Gym class, so we’d gathered in the gym with our gym
    uniforms on; but no class, just the PA system on, with the breaking
    news; I think I never did change, or take afternoon classes, we just
    listened. I remember seeing teachers in tears, and I remember some
    cruel comments from some kids; Then TV all weekend, and the somber state
    of Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs. It seems, in my memory to have been a long continuous crisis from the Cuban Missiles, to the Assassination, to the death of King (I’d marched in August, 63 with him), and then Robert Kennedy. It seemed to go on forever, in a way. It still reverberates in my life.

  • Ann Willis Scott

    You caught the feeling of that day so well — thank you. Fifty years ago I was test-driving a sports car on the Cross-Westchester thruway and flipped on the radio to see if it worked. The rest of the afternoon was a blur (although I did buy the car) until I got home and my mother had the television on and was frantically washing every single pane in the dozens of casement windows of our house. She never stopped washing (or crying) for what seemed like days. Even now, when I wash a window with panes I think of that day and my mother. And…I suddenly realized today as I pulled up in front of my CA house in a new car — it’s the second time I’ve bought a car on Nov. 22nd.