A continuation of my recollections of my early days in Nashville, Tennessee, and of my first experience with death–the assassination of JFK.
Sunrise in Nashville, July 2014
November 22, 1963, cont.: The Assassination
When I was five years old, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee with my parents along with my older brother and sister. Our modest, two story brick house on Fairfax Avenue near 21st Avenue was just a couple of blocks from the elementary school which I attended.
One Friday afternoon, on November 22, 1963, I was seated at my desk in my first grade classroom. Today, when I close my eyes to envision the scene, I can picture myself somewhere in the center back of the room.
I heard a voice begin to speak over the intercom. I believe it was a woman’s voice, possibly that of the principal’s. An eerie silence came over the room as if everyone immediately sensed the importance of what was about to be said. While the detached words began transmitting, I looked up at the brownish-black intercom box that hung above the chalkboard. Through my child’s eye, it appeared ominous, projecting the tone of the message that had traveled along its grim path, through the intercom’s inner workings, and on to us.
As with any shocking moment, it took a few moments to comprehend what was happening. I heard a string of words such as “The President,” “shot,” and “assassinated.” And finally…“John F. Kennedy is dead,” the voice without a face stated. Immediately, time was encapsulated by those words, as if a giant jar had been placed over our classroom, allowing nothing to come or go. A classroom full of little children trapped by the enormity of news that we were too young to begin to fathom.
Fifty-three years later, I can still clearly see this singular moment, a stark black and white image branded forever onto my soul. I can’t help but wonder why this event had such an impact on me.
Perhaps the memory endures in all its original power because only six months earlier, on May 18, 1963, I had actually seen Kennedy in person during a visit he had made to Nashville. It had been Vanderbilt University’s 90th anniversary and my family and I had gone to the stadium where Kennedy was to speak in connection with the commemoration.
Kennedy’s visit to Nashville was an extraordinary event for the city, and it is said that if you took the crowds who greeted The President upon his arrival at the airport and combined them with those along the route as well as those in the stadium, nearly half of the population of Nashville saw The President that day. Lining the route, from Murfreesboro Road to Broadway to West End, were cheering masses, an abundance of flags and banners, and dozens of musical performances all along the way.
I recall sitting in the stands of the stadium, surrounded by thousands of people, where I waited with youthful anticipation for The President’s arrival. I understood, in my childlike way, that what ever was about to happen was going to be very important.
Finally, the moment came when the motorcade made its entrance at the far end of the stadium. The scene was as if scripted for a movie, with Kennedy standing in his Lincoln Continental convertible and the Secret Service, dressed in their dark suits, looking nervously in all directions as they ran alongside The President’s car. The procession made its way out onto the playing field, and a roar filled the stadium as Kennedy waved to the crowd from his perch. And even from where I sat, many rows back from the field, I could see his wonderful smile.
Unexpectedly, the presidential convertible slowed to a stop almost directly in front of where we were seated. To everyone’s shock, Kennedy suddenly leapt from the car and ran in our direction. Even the secret service seemed to scramble into action, as if caught by surprise. (Apparently, Kennedy enjoyed these impromptu interactions with the crowds and this happened several times during his visit that day.) The crowd went berserk as Kennedy began shaking hands of those in the front rows, not too many yards away from our seats. It was an electrifying moment.
Despite my youth, what impressed me the most at the time was this man’s incredible presence. Looking back, it is astounding to me that a five year old could sense something so abstract as charisma. But there I was, along with 33,000 others, engulfed in it.
It has been noted that Kennedy’s visit to Nashville would prove to have eerie similarities to his later Dallas, Texas trip, including Kennedy waving to his admirers from his open presidential convertible; numerous spur of the moment interactions with the crowds; and a published motorcade route. One could even say that it forebode what was to come. For six months and four days later, on November 22, 1963, this man with the endless charisma and bright smile had been shot. And 664 miles from the site of the crime, a five-year-old girl who barely knew what death was, sat at her desk in her classroom, listening as a detached voice on the intercom told her that her president was dead.
This, then, was my introduction to death.
(to be continued…)