I was a 10-year-old on Nov. 22, 1963
I could walk you to within very few feet, perhaps inches, of the exact spot I was on at 12:30 p.m., Nov. 22, 1963. I was on the Butler Elementary School playground playing Artillery Ball after lunch. I was on the side facing the school, with Ray Davis across the line on the other side of the court facing away from the building. I played Artillery Ball almost every day and have no memory of Ray not being on the other side. You had to watch for Ray. Ray was good.
The bell rang calling us back to class from play and I took my seat, fourth row from the windows, third seat back. Mrs. Miller rose in front of us to begin the afternoon, just like always. Except today she was visibly frozen, a disconcerting stillness covered her barely suppressed sob, her voice solemn and subdued. “The president has been shot.” If those aren’t her exact words they convey the direct respect she accorded us; a straight cold truth delivered to young Americans who pledged allegiance every morning with our hands on our hearts facing the flag. We meant every word. We deserved to know.
By the time the Friday 3:15 p.m. school’s-out bell sounded we knew President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead. I probably stopped at Pease’s for a Three Musketeers on the way home anyway. Tomorrow morning the Illinois State Journal would unfold from its rubber band to a dark-bordered front page grimly confirming in huge black letters, “Our President Is Dead.”
Over the weekend every television on my block was on nonstop. We learned the name Lee Harvey Oswald and soon added Jack Ruby, Dealey Plaza and Texas School Book Depository, which featured a sixth-floor corner window. Jackie wore a pink suit, with a pillbox hat that got lost somewhere along the motorcade dash from Elm Street to Parkland Hospital and on to Andrews Air Force Base. Together with American adults and the whole world watching, we youngsters lived a civics lesson in American presidential transition. Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ of Texas, was now our president. Grief was stabilized by confidence.
In appropriately all black and white I recall his military parade dirge to the Capitol – drum beats along Pennsylvania Avenue under half-mast flags and somber faces. His flag-draped casket was carried on a horse-drawn caisson followed by a riderless horse. Dress-uniformed officers from each military service branch escorted him. Carried him. Guarded him. Grief was bolstered with pride.
I don’t know if they gave us Monday off school for the funeral but I remember enough of it to suspect I was home. Jackie now in black and veiled. Bobby beside her. Among many foreign leaders that were strangers to me I recognized Charles DeGaulle of France by his hat. I learned how to fold our flag properly. Such important knowledge for a young patriot. At his graveside of honor in what I learned that day is a place of honor, Arlington National Cemetery, his eternal flame was lit. It burns today.
Flags were flown at half mast for 30 days. At Butler School the flags hanging in every classroom were bordered with black construction paper. We would leave school for Christmas holiday near the end of official mourning and return in January to flags at full mast in full color – red for courage, white for peace, blue for loyalty.
We were 10. We moved on. We had a lot of responsibility growing up. Besides, nothing would ever be the same anyway. The Beatles were almost here and they were going to change everything.
John Levalley is a sixth-generation Springfield native and freelance writer with a keen interest in relating current and historical events.