Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Most Horrendous Weekend

On November 22, 1963, I was a 26 year-old graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., studying for my comprehensive exams, drafting my doctoral dissertation, and teaching four courses at Prince Georges Community College in nearby Suitland, Maryland. My real job, though, was keeping watch over my gorgeous daughter, Jeanne Marie, who had been born in G.U. Hospital on the previous June 12th, while my wife Lee was teaching middle school in Southeast Washington. We had seen the President and Mrs. Kennedy in person a few times at Sunday mass in Holy Trinity Church, on the G.U. campus. The day of the Wisconsin Democratic Party primary, I was attending early weekday mass at Holy Trinity, as was Mrs. Kennedy. After mass, she lit a votive candle. It must have worked because JFK beat out my favorite candidate--Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota.

On that horrendous November 22, 1963, I was keeping watch over Jeannie, and working on my dissertation. As incredible as it sounds, I had just consulted my dictionary <you know, those bulky volumes that preceded the Internet.>to look up the correct spelling of the word "assassination," because I was writing about the killing of Kentucky Governor William Goebel in 1899. I turned on the TV to catch some of the 1:00 CBS news broadcast, and was stunned to hear that the President had been shot in Dallas.I first yelled out loud that those &&&****
right-wingers had killed the president. Then I knelt down by the living room chair and uttered the Catholic prayer for the dead.  I tried repeatedly to reach Lee at school on one of those old fashioned land lines <remember them?> but I did not know that the city's entire communication and transportation systems had been shut down, for fear that the assassination was the first step in a coup to take over the entire U.S. government. After Lee made it home, I walked over to a nearby shopping center and saw that everyone on the sidewalk was absolutely stunned. Many were completely lost in their own thoughts, while others were deeply engaged in conversation with what had been, up to now, total strangers.

Eventually, I went to P.G.C.C. to teach my evening classes. When I met what was supposed to be my first class, I tried to say something meaningful or comforting, but I was really at a loss for words, for one of the few times in my life, especially in front of a class. We talked a bit about our reactions and feelings, but I finally dismissed my students, as did all of my colleagues. In fact, the entire campus was soon shut down by the administrators. Since we were only a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base, where the plane carrying the President's body, Mrs. Kennedy, and the newly sworn President LBJ was about to land, we drove out in that direction. Needless to say, we were not able to get anywhere near it because of the tight security, so I went home to spend most of the rest of the weekend glued to the TV in an almost catatonic state, barely pausing to eat or sleep. On Saturday night, we went to the Capitol where the President was lying in state, but we were warned by a policeman that it would be at least an eight-hour wait--even to get into the building. The end of the line formed in front of the Capitol and extended, six or eight across, for the 17 blocks south to the Anacostia River and back to the Capitol. The mood was somber and subdued, with most people carrying on quiet conversations among themselves. Many of them were previously unknown to one another, united only by shared grief and disbelief. It was a cold night and we had Jeannie in tow, so we decided to go home and watch events on TV. The next morning, we were stunned again by witnessing Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live TV, an event that lent an even more surreal atmosphere to an already unimaginable turn of events. On Monday, we decided to watch the funeral procession that ended at Arlington National Cemetery across the 14th Street Bridge on TV, rather than fight the multitudes lined up along the processional route. We probably would have joined them, if it were not for our concern about subjecting Jeannie to that ordeal. To this day, I sometimes still hear the wailing sounds of Chopin's funeral march. It will probably never leave my subconscious and still occasionally rises to the conscious level. It was the most devastating weekend of my life and remains so, even with all the horrors that have occurred with such depressing regularity ever since.


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