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Gray day in November turns into a day a nation wept

Larry French • Nov 18, 2013 at 9:26 AM

It began like any other late November autumn morning in the Arkansas Delta: A drizzling rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. I was born on a day similar to that one, and had for more than 17 years grown accustomed to the weather. In other words, it was just another typical gray day. However, I would soon come to an entirely different understanding of “just another typical gray day.” School began with the usual three periods before lunch: English, study hall and concert band. After lunch at the Wildcat Huddle, it was off to journalism class at 12:35, where the next generation of Associated Press reporters was preparing to publish the weekly edition of the Wildcat Scratch. For some reason though, I was running about 3 minutes late for class and of course, didn’t have an excuse. That was until the principal, Dale Spradlin, approached me from the other end of the hall. Because of a mutual respect between students and authority and authority and students, Mr. Spradlin always called us by our last names, so, even though I wasn’t in class, “Mr. French, please come over here,” created no immediate anxiety. However, what he asked me to do at 12:38 p.m., on that gray November afternoon, still resonates today. I went into the classroom, walked up to Mrs. Virginia Ragan’s desk, and quietly told her, “Mr. Spradlin said to tell you that President Kennedy has been shot.” Even now, it’s difficult to put into words the expression I saw on her face. It is not difficult though to tell you that she wept. Then she informed the class. An hour later school dismissed, and an eerie silence befell the halls of Watson Chapel High School. It would be Dec. 2, before we returned.My father had arrived home early from work, and that evening there was very little conversation at the supper table. Afterward, our family gathered around the television set as the news of the day overwhelmed us. I specifically recall CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite removing his glasses each time he said, “The president,” or referred to President Kennedy by name. Respect of the highest order. And while I eventually retired for the night, the nation did not sleep.Our television remained on for the next three days as we tried to come to grips with the insanity of it all, and continually asked the ultimate question. Why?On Friday evening, CBS Television presented the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in a live and complete performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” As the orchestra and chorus reached that majestic E-flat major finale, and the words — “Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again. ... What thou hast fought for shall lead thee to God!” — rang out, my father went to his bedroom and wept. Only one other time do I recall my father becoming that emotional: the day he buried his mother. In the remaining days though, our family, along with a nation, would sadly bury the 35th president of the United States.In looking back, as well as forward, and remembering growing up in a home where politics was often discussed, I thought about the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, where I quickly learned that my father was a Kennedy supporter and my mother a Nixon supporter. One can only imagine what it was like in our home leading up to the November 1960 election. Of course, those early days of television (unlike today’s 24-hour misinformation of everything useless and slanted) played an important role in our home, too. I remember watching Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony on a cold and windy January day in 1961, and how, more than half a century later, two things have remained constant. Poet Robert Frost, who at age 87 moved the audience with his reading of “The Gift Outright,” and Kennedy’s unforgettable “Ask not ... but ask what” inaugural address, which electrified the audience, unified America and helped to cement the fact that he remains this nation’s greatest presidential orator.Kennedy’s inaugural address would also become the catalyst for many young men who agreed with his assessment of communism and the domino effect, and found it necessary to enlist and fight against the communist aggressors in South Vietnam. I did, because it was what I was asked to do for America. And while my comprehensive opinions about the Vietnam War have changed, I’m still proud of the fact that I served. After my tour of duty (1966-67), I returned home, celebrated my 21st birthday and received a copy of William Manchester’s epic and definitive novel, “Death of a President: November 1963,” a novel that should be required reading for every student in America today.Years passed and the nation moved on; however, it would never completely recover. To wit: In 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first American to walk on the moon, Cronkite would again remove his glasses and wipe the tears from his eyes. While Kennedy wasn’t present to witness this moment in history he had envisioned years earlier, Cronkite’s mere gesture immediately brought to mind those November memories.Later in life, I would journey to Arlington Cemetery and visit President Kennedy’s gravesite. As I stood there, looking at the Eternal Flame, I found it impossible not to remember the solitude and eerie quietness of that gray day so long ago ... when a nation wept, Nov. 22, 1963.Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College. Reach him at FrenchL@etsu.edu.