Webmaster of Jack
Thirty-nine years ago today, on the Friday before Thanksgiving,
I was in the sixth grade. We were in our classroom on the second
floor, having just gotten back from our weekly trip down to the
Bookmobile, which the Newark Public Library parked outside our school
all day every Friday. The shades were drawn, and we were watching
a program on WNDT, Channel 13, the educational station in New York.
The black and white TV images were up in the corner near the ceiling.
As usual, the faint sound of rattling cans from the nearby Ballantine
brewery could be heard in the background.
I can't remember which show we were watching. It could have been
"Parlons Francais," the French lesson show with Anne Slack.
Or it might have been the music show with that nice African-American
woman (Negro lady, in those days) who taught us such hot numbers
as "Grinding Corn." Or maybe it was "Places in the
News," the geography/current events show with that nice, smart
But it was interrupted for a bulletin. Apparently shots had been
fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas.
Our teacher, Miss Matheson, wasn't in the room at the time. She
was down in the principal's office, where she retreated when she
needed a break from us, which was often. One of the girls ran out
to find her, because it seemed like this was big news.
The bulletins continued to interrupt the show, which no one could
concentrate on any more, anyway. Each time, the screen would cut
to a card that they showed that said "Bulletin." It also
included the station logo, which was a very simple cartoon owl.
Sometimes the cards they displayed between shows would have three
of these owls sitting side by side on top of the station call letters
and channel number. You always heard the announcer, but you never
saw him or her. Now a man was reading copy from one of the wire
services, and sounding very agitated.
By the time Miss Matheson got back, there was no more show, just
the owl card and the news. Indeed, Kennedy had been hit and was
at the hospital. There was a rumor that he was dead. Then Channel
13 switched over to CBS, and just started simulcasting what was
being broadcast there. It was Walter Cronkite.
It looked like he was crying.
We prayed a lot at that school, but when Cronkite confirmed the
worst, we did something we never did before or after: we all knelt
down on that cold, hard tile floor, right next to our desks. We
prayed like there was no tomorrow. We didn't know what else to do.
While we offered up Hail Mary after Hail Mary, Miss Matheson ran
down to break the news to the principal. Soon the principal got
on the intercom and told the whole school what the sixth grade already
knew. The last classes of the day were cancelled, and we headed
across the street to the church for another round of prayer, probably
a whole rosary, before we went home to our stunned, frightened parents.
Friday evening at our house usually featured either fried flounder
or pizza -- no meat on Friday, of course -- and a raft of TV shows.
Maybe Man from UNCLE would be on, and definitely Jack Paar at 10:00.
That particular Friday night, though, the three big network stations
broadcast just the grim news, and the other stations continued to
simulcast it. By the end of the night, the grownups were simply
dumbfounded. Our moms and grandmas cried, and the men swore.
Where I lived, JFK was our man. In any given school, office, barber
shop, or veterans post, you were likely to find pictures of three
men: Jesus, Pope John XXIII, and JFK, and not necessarily in that
order. Jack was the bright, young Democrat President. A robust (or
so we thought) Catholic daddy with a beautiful, rich wife and two
adorable boomer kids. And, we all joked, he had a lot of hair. He
played touch football on the White House lawn with his huge Irish
family. He had a temper, and as he showed the steel guys, he wasn't
afraid to use it to his advantage. He stood up to Krushchev. He
stood up to George Wallace. He and his brother even stood up to
Jimmy Hoffa. We loved him, and now they had killed him.
I saw him once in person. He was coming to New York to address
the United Nations, and my godmother, my mom's sister Peggy, insisted
on taking my brother and me over to see the motorcade. And so over
to the city we went on the Public Service no. 118 bus. We stood
behind a police barricade along the curb on one of the big north-south
thoroughfares as the giant parade breezed by. Kennedy was standing
in that open car, smiling, waving at folks. Since we had only seen
him on television and in the papers, we were surprised to see that
his hair was a reddish brown, not black.
also distinctly recall, as we were waiting for the motorcade to
arrive, looking across the street at a man who was standing in a
full-length second story window doing the same. I remarked to Aunt
Peggy that that man could shoot the President from there. We all
The assassination made for an exciting weekend for us kids, but
at our age, we didn't realize how badly the wind had been knocked
out of the nation and the world. We were getting used to impending
disaster. Just a year before, we had trained for weeks about what
to do if the air raid sirens went off. Walk quickly to the cafeteria
in the school basement, where the prayers would start up again.
We knew that New York would be ground zero, because it was the
center of the world. Our folks had calculated that we were just
eight miles from where the Cuban missile would hit. When that crisis
was defused, we had all thanked God, the Pope, and JFK, and not
necessarily in that order. We had gone about the happy business
of post-war America.
A few months later, the Beatles would give us our childhood back.
But on that Friday before Thanksgiving, that childhood, and we,
(Photo of St. Aloysius School by my friend Bill