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Reflecting on JFK, role television had the week after his death

Jan Hearne • Nov 18, 2013 at 9:37 AM

It is a late fall afternoon; I am in sixth grade. Sister Marie Therese, the principal, is on the intercom. “Will you get out of here?!,” she snaps at a student. We giggle. There is a pause, then she tells us the president has been shot. Our teacher, Mrs. Stout, turns on the classroom television, the one we use to watch Dr. Ruth Stevens’ history show. Ricky Young hums Taps; Mrs. Stout puts a quick end to it.My friends are crying, I am crying. The newsman says President Kennedy has been shot. Then he tells us he is dead. No, wait, the report is unconfirmed. Hope rises among us. A gunshot can also be a flesh wound, can’t it?I get irritated. “Is he or isn’t he?” I whisper to my friend, also Jan. If our president is going to survive and be well, I want the misery I’m feeling, a feeling I’ve never experienced, to end, right now. I don’t want to go down that dark well.A few minutes later it is confirmed: The handsome young president, the quick-witted man with the ready smile, the young father is gone. Forever. It’s not a concept I’m familiar with. My grandfather died when I was 7 but I barely knew him. JFK and his family had become part of our lives.Sister Marie Therese calls Eleanor out of the room. She is told to bring her things. We learn later her grandfather has died. It is remarkable to me that two beloved people can die on the same day. Does death, having done its worst, not take the rest of the day off? Could it be that life, already unpredictable, also wasn’t fair?Later that afternoon, Boo and I sit on her swing set, rocking back and forth rather than swinging. Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested. Boo and I concoct ways to punish him. Anger is a release from the pain.Our school is canceled for the next week, Thanksgiving week. It is announced at Mass on Sunday. Monsignor Dolan has decided we should stay at home and be witness to history as the events unfolded on TV.Later that afternoon, Oswald is shot on camera. I am not in front of the TV, but I hear my sister scream. The scene is replayed in the days that follow. We are not sad when we hear Oswald died.What strikes me now, aside from the pain we felt, is the role television took on that week. It had been in our house less than 10 years, was a source of entertainment and news, but had never been our constant companion for days on end.My sister and I lay on our parents’ bed and watched events unfold: Jackie’s blood-stained skirt and hose as she departed the plane in Washington; the tens of thousands lined up outside the Capitol where the president’s body lay in the rotunda, Caroline’s small hand touching the flag on her father’s coffin, John John’s salute, the riderless horse, the lighting of the eternal flame at the grave, a young widow’s grace and grief.We were witnesses in a way not possible before. TV made everything present and real and deeply felt. Television allowed us into a world previously denied. Our lives, defined by family and community, expanded to include all the world’s joy and sorrow. Soon, Vietnam would become our first televised war.In November 1963, there was only the present, what was happening before our very eyes. We had no perspective, only shock and grief.Fifty years later the pain is still there, indelibly carved upon our hearts by the images on our television screens.Jan Hearne can be reached at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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