Mrs. Bieschel came running into the fourth-grade classroom like a crazy lady. She had black circles under her eyes and brown lines running down her cheeks. Now, of course, later in life I discovered that this was caused by mascara and face foundation being streaked by tears. But at the time and with the mind of a 10-year-old I searched for an explanation.
Just a few weeks earlier Johnny Ryan had a similar-looking black eye when Jimmy Spada punched him in the face at recess. My first thought was that my grammar school principal had stepped into a three-punch combination. If her appearance wasn’t odd enough, Mrs. Bieschell did something I had never seen an educator do; she grabbed our teacher, Miss Casey, and hugged her. They clutched each other and rocked gently.
This diversion was exactly what I needed at the time. My attention span, late in the day, and at that age, was about the same as a hummingbird; Ritalin had yet to be discovered. Our principal addressed the class, “President Kennedy has been shot. You children should all go home.”
John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were in my prayers every night. I’m not sure if it was per my mother’s suggestion or if I came up with it on my own. Actually, I prayed for their child Patrick who died before he was a week old. Patrick was the only non-family member who made the cut to be included in my divine petitions. After asking God to bless my parents, siblings and the Boston Red Sox, I would say, “And, God, please bless Patrick and Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy.”
It might seem odd that after more than 50 years I can remember so much about that day and that time; but after that day, it seemed like nothing was ever the same. It began with Mrs. Beischell’s emotional outburst. Then within a few days I saw two people murdered on TV. Before that time my only exposure to the dead was ancient uncles and aunts at open-casket wakes and funerals. Then within a few days I watched, over and over, the footage of the motorcade shooting and the Oswald murder on TV.
My family and I viewed the funeral procession on black-and-white TV — the caisson, rider-less horse, Jackie’s black veil and John-John saluting the casket. Soon after, I stopped praying for their lost child Patrick, reasoning that he now had his dad to look after him.
But more than that, to a young mind it seemed that nothing was safe or sacred after that.
I think JFK’s administration was during a sweet spot of the information age. It was a time when all of us could see him on TV and in Life, Post and Look magazines. A rich, brilliant, handsome man with a beautiful wife and two cute kids. (Except for the rich, brilliant and handsome part, we all could relate.) It was also when the press was either reluctant to report on or unaware of anything less than flattering involving politicians’ personal lives. The fawning over the Kennedys was never to be repeated. There was a song called “My Daddy Is President,” performed by Little Jo but sung as if it was voiced by the first daughter Caroline, and another called “The Ballad of PT 109,” by Jimmy Dean about JFK’s exploits in WWII. The nation and the world were in love with JFK.
In today’s age of working parents, and the mindset of children needing constant supervision, parents would need to be notified that their kids were being sent home. In those days, we simply filed out of the Eastondale school, some to busses, others on foot and bicycles and headed our separate ways.
Joey Corea and I road our bikes to his house together; neither one of us wanting to be alone. I waited outside while he put on his “play clothes”; we then went to my house while I did the same. Like our teachers and principal, both our mothers had tears in their eyes.
Of course, we have come to learn that JFK wasn’t a perfect man or a flawless president; nor did he have a perfect marriage. Perhaps had he lived to serve his term, he might have been viewed under a harsher historical light. But as it is, a half century later, many of us recall that day and those that followed with a precise recollection.
There has never been an American leader so loved as JFK. Perhaps we loved him because he brought youth, unity and optimism into the mindset of America, but that isn’t why the passion for him has never been matched. We are a different nation in a changed world. We are a country divided, an angry nation, a republic that comes together (and only briefly) during times of crisis. I can’t remember America so divided, but I do hope for a return to a time where we can debate, perhaps disagree yet still respect those of dissenting views.
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
We can only hope that JFK’s words will once again come to pass.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org