Defining Moments: Losing JFK

Woman mounting dark staircase
Photo by Ali Yahya
The Shock, The Tears

Cold November winds rattled the tall windows of the St. Mary’s College dining room, but I was hot and sweaty that Friday as I rushed to complete setting the tables and loading the dishwasher racks with dirty lunch dishes.  I had a train to catch. The next Thursday would be Thanksgiving, but I would be working that day.  Instead, I had the coming weekend free from Friday through Sunday evening. My excitement mounted as I ran out the kitchen door and up the five flights of stairs that led to my dorm room.  When the staircase opened into the small lounge at the end of the fifth-floor hall, I paused to catch my breath.

At that moment, I realized that although the room was packed with other girls, a weighty silence filled the room. Everyone was gathered around the radio in the corner. Many girls were crying.

“What?” I asked.

My roommate Carrie disentangled herself from the cluster, holding her finger to her lips. Tears slid down her cheeks, causing rivers in her make-up. “The President’s been shot,” she whispered.

My stomach roiled so brusquely that I had to cover my mouth to fight back nausea. “But he’ll be okay, right,” I said.

“No one knows,” Carrie said. “He’s on the way to the hospital now.”

My elation drained away. I glanced at my watch.  I still had to catch that train. The guy with whom I’d been going steady for over a year was waiting for me in Chicago. With leaden feet, I trudged back to my room, tossed my soiled white uniform on the floor, quickly washed my face and applied some lipstick (the extent of my make-up in those days). The clothes I had picked out lay ready on my bed, navy turtle neck, bright red and navy plaid wool knee-length skirt and block heel navy pumps. It had taken months to acquire that outfit, but it no longer gladdened my heart.

Lugging my suitcase, I trudged through slush across campus under the barren trees to the bus stop.  Other girls waited there and queried me.  “Have you heard anything more about Kennedy?”

“Only that the governor of Texas was shot as well.  No more news than that.” It was frustrating. On the bus ride into South Bend, the usual girlish chattering was hushed. Some girls openly prayed the rosary. I stared at the bleak November cityscape wondering how such a brilliant and bright leader could be the target of such hate.  It’s a question I’ve asked myself times past counting since then.

I couldn’t really feel joy but was so very relieved that happenstance was taking me into Chicago on that day of all days, that I could be with Jay at this difficult time.  Passengers on the South Shore train didn’t know much more than my classmates except that journalists reported that Jackie’s dress had been covered in blood as she cradled her husband’s head in her lap. It became harder and harder to hold on to the little hope I had.

Girl looking out train window
Photo by Jassir Jonis

Jay was waiting beside the track when my train screeched into the Randolph Street.  His face, which I could see through the window, was ashen. I stepped out of the train car and into his arms. From the way he clung to me, I knew we had lost our hero.

That’s who John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to the post- World War II/pre-Vietnam conflict generation. Handsome, charming and blessed with a radiant smile, he seemed a new kind of politician, dignified and intelligent, bold and brilliant in world affairs, and forward-thinking in his domestic policies.

Kennedy at Cape Canavril
Photo by History in HD
Shared Bereavement

For my cohort group, the question “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” would remain a bonding conversation starter for years to come.  We would learn that like any hero he was flawed, but that didn’t mitigate our sense of having lost one of our brightest and our best.

Kennedy’s death was a turning point for me is another important respect. As soon as I first learned of the attack, I immediately knew that I needed to be where Jay was to ride out the mourning the loss would bring on. When the worse possible things happen, knowing who it is we must be with is one of the most important of Love’s Lessons.