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November 20, 2013

ANDERSON: A day to remember

— November 22, 1963, is burned forever in my mind. I was 12, school was tedious. We were all there when the principal called all staff to the office.

That had never happened before — no adults to watch over us ... they were all in the office. When Mrs. McKinley came back she was visibly shaken. She asked us to bend our heads in prayer because President Kennedy had been shot. The principal came back over the loud speaker to announce that the buses were coming for us and we would be going home early.

The ride home was quiet. Nobody spoke; we just all kind of sat and wandered. The bus driver I remember was crying. We all knew something had changed forever and it wasn’t good.

When I got home, my mother was already in front of the TV and was holding my younger brothers and sisters close to her, weeping. We sat down and watched it with her, no words, just emotions. I still can’t watch replays of the events that took place that day.

On Sunday morning, those feelings started all over again for me and then “Meet the Press” continued them. My husband had fixed banana peanut butter pancakes and we were starting to eat them when somebody interviewed Lucy Baines Johnson, and I heard her speak of that day for the first time in my life.

I don’t believe I have ever heard her talk about it and she had such a unique perspective. They came to tell her it seems, and she was terrified her parents were hurt as well. We, as a nation, never recognized that fear for her or her sister.

Don wanted to know if I was going to watch the coverage further. While it may be cathartic, it is to painful to participate in even today. The Kennedys were such an intimate part of our lives and it was brought into our living rooms through the very new medium of television. At least for us, it was new.

We were poor and getting a television was a huge luxury my parents worked hard for, and when they got it they understood its power. Our watching was limited — Saturday morning cartoons, Red Skelton, “Gunsmoke” and eventually Carol Burnett, “Bonanza,” and the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” I never watched “Howdy Doody,” as my mother found him frightening. So, this constant coverage and never leaving the television until after the funeral told us this was something so important we could never forget it.

We had seven children. My youngest sister, Jessica, had been born but lived only three days. My mother always told us she died of the same thing the Kennedy baby died from; poor people idolized the Kennedys. They were rich people, but they seemed to genuinely care for the poor, the sick, and Civil Rights was coming directly from their tables to ours.

It was an amazing time to be alive. And you felt alive. At our dinner table, we discussed Martin Luther King, we talked about the Kennedys. My dad’s biggest concern was that he was Catholic. He knew no matter what, though, that the world was changing and Jack Kennedy had something to do with it.

I hadn’t heard much of the talk of drugs and alcohol and the Hippie craze hadn’t swung into gear yet. Our country was in transition and the road forked after the assassination. I can’t watch the funeral procession even today without weeping.

I look at that Kennedy woman’s face — my mothers name for Jackie — and I see that woman who would be ostracized for her marriage to Onassis, who would gracefully manage to keep her children’s lives private and I weep for her.

On TV, they spoke to the daughter of the Army engineer who had designed the eternal flame. It was Mrs. Kennedy’s idea. So was his burial site. They told a beautiful story about how the president had visited that site eight months earlier and told his wife he could stay there forever. The flame for her was significant. For us, too.

She never wanted the spirit of her husband to die. What he was doing was monumental in this country. Had he been allowed to finish, would we even be having a health care discussion today or would we have led the charge in the industrialized world on health care as a human right?

When would we have left Vietnam? Would there ever have been an Afghanistan?

Jack Kennedy suffered in war; he was no fan of it. He and his brother believed in a more balanced opportunity for people with little opportunity. He wanted a higher education for people, and equal opportunity.

Today when I wept, it wasn’t just for the Kennedys; it was for my country and the feeling of having been lost for 50 years, of unfulfilled promise, and hope gone awry. It was for my grandfather, who sat on his front porch as the Kennedys walked through the streets of Eastern Kentucky and for the pride he felt that a president cared that much.

It was for the innocence of the time, and the humanity. People were less than perfect — that has been made all too clear over the years — but perhaps for the first time in our lives, the president was part of the people because we watched him, he touched us, and we loved him.

— Barbara Anderson, Jeffersonville, is executive director of Haven House Services Inc. Reach her by email at barbanderson_1@yahoo.com

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