How history sneaks up on you

This past weekend I was happy to celebrate my 67th birthday. I know that seems older than dirt to many of you youngsters who receive the newspaper every week in your home or classroom. I usually don’t feel that old. I know I am, but most days it just doesn’t seem like it.

A couple of events besides my birthday brought it home to me during the weekend, however. There were specials on television and a review in the Sunday Wichita Eagle about the assassination of President John Kennedy 50 years ago. I am sure the story seems like ancient history to most of you.

However, each of us old enough to remember the world on Nov. 22, 1963, will also remember where we were when we heard the news. It still seems like just yesterday.

I had just had my 17th birthday and I was a junior in high school. Our school had about 300 students per grade, crowded into a sprawling 1920s brick building. Because of the crowded conditions, ninth grade students remained at the three junior high schools and high school began for us with our sophomore year. The educational community had been lobbying for passage of a bond issue to build a new high school and the issue was coming up soon. Two students from each of the three high school classes were recruited to be interviewed on the local radio station about our over-crowded facility. I was one of the representatives of the junior class.

The radio station, WLBK, was a kind of hokey down-home AM station that featured a popular daily program of items for sale or trade. The farm markets and national news were covered, as were local sports, church news, card shower requests, and much more. The radio station itself was right across the street from our high school. Nov. 22, 1963, was mild and sunny for a northern Illinois November, and the six of us walked across the school grounds for our interviews shortly after noon that day.

A sound technician put us into a room with a large window and arranged us around a table with a microphone. A receptionist came by with glasses of water and nametags to pin on our shirts. She left the door open when she left. We whispered and shuffled around, looking forward to being interviewed, and hoping we wouldn’t mess up.

A few minutes later, we were aware of a flurry of activity beyond the glass in the room where we sat. A teletype machine clattered to life, spewing out a message on paper, and the person looking at it swore loudly. Phones began ringing and the station staff members were grabbing the receivers — most of them seemed to be shouting. One man was in a booth speaking into a microphone — I guess to the listeners across town and in the farm homes of our county. The receptionist who had brought us water walked into the production room, confused, and then began sobbing, her face in her hands.

I no longer remember all the details, but after several minutes, a man looked through the window at us. He looked as if he couldn’t remember why we were there. He came into the room and told us President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and was dead. He said, “Come on, we need to get you kids out of here. Who knows what will happen next?” We were herded out of the station and driven across the street to the high school. Stunned, none of us said a word.

This was long before schools had grief counselors or evacuation plans to get students back to their parents. The whole country had only three television stations and there were few televisions in classrooms. Someone in the office must have had a radio, as there were periodic announcements over the school’s loudspeaker. All afternoon, rumors were rampant among us about Cuban and Russian assassins, atomic bombs, and foreign submarines lying offshore. We all wanted badly to go home, but school officials had no authority to send us and so they kept us there until the end of the school day.

Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States within hours of Kennedy’s death. The name Lee Harvey Oswald was on the lips of every newscaster before the day was over. Two days later, on live television, the world saw him shot to death by Jack Ruby as he was being escorted from the Dallas jail.

Funeral arrangements for Kennedy were made and during the following week our country buried a bright, charismatic, and popular young president. We saw his wife and daughter kiss the casket on display in the White House, watched thousands file through in honor of the man, and wept seeing his 3-year-old son salute the caisson as it passed by.

Looking back at my own record of my life back in the early 1960s, the only comment in my journal on Nov. 24 of that year was, “God help us all.”

Fifty years IS a long time. There will be tons for you to remember between now and then. However, my wish for each of you is a significant and happy memory that brings you back to 2013 with feelings of joy, peace, and satisfaction.

— SUSAN MARSHALL

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