JFK/50 - Writer recounts childhood memories of fateful day in1963

Published on Thursday, 21 November 2013 23:40 - Written by By Steve Knight outdoors@tylerpaper.com

Everyone who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, can tell you where they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

I was in a third-grade art class at Clinton P. Russell Elementary School in Dallas.

It was an era that was light years away from today’s world. It was rotary dial telephones, cars without seat belts, rabbit-ear television antennas and cross-country travel by train.

We were still more than a year away from astronaut John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit Earth, and today’s cellphones are more sophisticated than Glenn’s Mercury 7 capsule.

That morning there was no live telecast of the motorcade through Dallas, or we might have been watching in on the few black-and-white televisions scattered around the school. If anything, there might have been radio coverage, but no one at the school was listening. We had carried our transistor radios the month before to listen to the Los Angeles Dodgers sweep the New York Yankees in the World Series, but no one had thought of carrying one this day.

Dallas students had an excused absence to go to Love Field where Kennedy’s plane arrived from Fort Worth or to watch the motorcade through downtown, but my brother, Rob, and I went to school.

That might have had to do with my parents’ politics (my mother was a liberal Republican and my father a conservative Democrat), but I was too young to know.

The school day started like most others except there was a feeling that something special was happening in Dallas. In one morning class, we had a social studies test that included the question: What city is President Kennedy visiting today?

Art was one the first classes after lunch. The classroom was in an old part of the school, a small building that was once the entire school built in the 1930s.

Sometime about 12:45 p.m., the loud speaker over the teacher’s desk suddenly came to life. Announcements usually came in the morning or at the beginning of a class period unless there was something like a Cold War-era duck-and-cover drill or a fire drill. No one could have expected what we heard next. In a somber voice, school Principal James Wilder announced that the president had been shot.

The previously loud classroom was suddenly silent. Even as 9-year-olds, we knew this was important. We might just not have known how or why. We also knew it happened in our city.

Instantly, several girls in our class began to cry. The art teacher, George Corley, excused them to go to the bathroom just outside the classroom door. The boys just kind of looked at each other, not knowing what to do or say.

Russell was in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas at 3031 S. Beckley and, at the time, was predominately white and probably considered a middle-class neighborhood.

The school was at 3031 S. Beckley St. According to reports that came after the shooting, assassin Lee Harvey Oswald left his shooting perch in the Texas School Book Depository and arrived at his apartment at 1026 N. Beckley St., five miles away, at 1 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Oswald shot Dallas Police office J.D. Tippit at the corner of 10th and Patton streets, four miles away. At 1:50 p.m., Oswald was arrested in the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Street, 3 1/2 miles from the school.

There wasn’t such a thing as lockdown then, but I do remember seeing a police car or two patrolling around the school.

A few students left early that afternoon, but most stayed until the final bell. There wasn’t much education going on, and the teachers didn’t try to teach.

We lived on the last block in the school district, a good mile’s walk, and that afternoon my brother and I walked home together. My mother had the television on watching the news reports.

The following days were chaotic for a 9-year-old. Because it was the dark ages of television news, some now say it was the beginning of the modern era. There were a lot of confusing reports in Dallas as to whether police had the only suspect in custody.

The Friday night high school football games we always attended were canceled.

I remember being upset Saturday morning as news coverage continued instead of my normal routine of cartoons and Western serials on our black-and-white television.

The next morning we were at Trinity Heights Presbyterian Church when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. The image of that burned in my mind is the famous Jack Beers photo of the shooting in the police garage that appeared the next morning in the Dallas Morning News.

Monday morning, my father went to work. My sister, brother and I were at home. School was canceled, and we sat with our mom and watched the funeral procession. The sights of horse-drawn caissons and the riderless horse with the boots in the stirrups backward remain with me 50 years later.

My brother recently said he heard adults after the shooting saying they were glad it had happened. I never heard that, nor at the time would I have understood their bias over a Catholic president.

I do remember Dallas being labeled the City of Hate. I didn’t understand that either at the time, but I knew it hurt to hear. I didn’t know hate in Dallas, and I didn’t understand why 670,000 of us were being blamed for the actions of one.