Saturday, November 23, 2013

Recollections of the JFK Assassination -November 22 - 25, 1963


John Fitzgerald Kennedy

 (May 29, 1917 - Nov 22, 1963)

DETROIT November 22, 2013  This weekend marks the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It is a milestone that one never could imagine would arrive so swiftly, shake up emotion and jolt our memory. Today, I write as a catharsis to recall distant memories, sort through decades of controversy and hope to find meaning and the effect  on my life and of my classmates who shared the exact time and space of that day.

 It is November 2013 and the television airs a seemingly endless string of documentaries recounting the tragedy, shock and disbelief then and now. The recounts and dissects every aspect, event and the casualty of spirit after four heart-wrenching days beginning with shots ringing out across Dealey Plaza on a Friday and a funeral march on Monday. NBC aired one special that rose above the rest.
Tom Brokaw presided as commentator, host and conscience for a title I regrettably cannot exact "Where Were You When You First Heard of President Kennedy's death?"

I began the morning by posting recollections on Twitter and Face Book. As the morning moved to afternoon, a constant and endless flow of tributes, memories and blogs came to serve a renewed “vigor” to write. I wrote on past midnight only to break at dawn. My goal is to record my own impressions of the assassination and the impact on my life.

– Where were you when you first learned of President Kennedy’s death?

   St. Juliana Catholic Elementary School, Detroit, Michigan -   November 22, 1963                                                 
In 1963, we reached the 8th grade and final year at St. Juliana. We sat in the classroom that afternoon when we could hear something stirring in the hall. Sr. Consuela excused herself for just a quick moment so to attend an impromptu meeting. Upon her return, visibly shaken she informed us that an announcement was forthcoming on the P.A.

We sat silent and then the deep but somber voice of our Pastor, Fr. Holloway resonated from that round speaker above the teacher desk. Fr. Holloway informed us at approximately 1:30PM that our beloved President Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. At 12:30PM CT and now pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital. He cautioned us to remain calm throughout and led us in prayer for the President, the First Lady and the Kennedy Family.

I recall that I (as one of his chief campaign supporters) I felt shock and had some difficulty in just what this meant for all of us in our community and how the country or U.S.S.R. might react. We worried of a possible WWIII. When I began to digest this tragedy, my eyes welled with tears.

I am not sure if we had an early dismissal or not. I know that later I watched two school buses pass by on Hayes Rd. moving toward Harper and I-94. I quickly identified one as the Denby H.S. Football team and the other as from Notre Dame H.S. Then it dawned on me. The decision, that the Championship Football game would take place as one way to memorialize our dead President. "He would have wanted the game to go forward" I heard. This was the Soup Bowl pitting Detroit Public School Champions against the Catholic School Champions
A gray sky engulfed the City of Detroit that evening. The weather turned breezy and cold as I stood on the corner there at Evanston. Both buses passed with respective football teams rode in silence to Tiger Stadium or was it Briggs Stadium at that time. A cold persistent drizzle fell and those teams played the game under even more adverse conditions. I did not remain there long. I returned home. It was going to be a long, almost silent weekend vigil at home. Every eye focused on the B&W TV. This was the first time that for most of the class, Death became personal, unique to each in level of pain.

As a Nation, we found no closure viewing from a distant perch in our own living room. The somber filled funeral procession eclipsed all time and any other event as it moved slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue. The Lincoln funeral one hundred years prior inspired the use of a caisson. The constant in it all is the sound of horse hoofs on brick. Tied to the back is Blackjack, a rider less horse. The finality to that day is dark, but ashen, absent closure for all who witness there and across the globe courtesy of his vision. We painfully viewed interment at the resting place appropriate in Heroic design. The cobbled site fit for King or Pharaoh. It is not Giza but Arlington National Cemetery.

 Jacqueline Kennedy became the chief choreographer of all of the funeral and memorial that took place on Monday, November 25, 1963.  Imagine in the face of such adversity, her requests were not to be denied. She became an inspiration as how one of her stature could mourn with dignity under the scrutiny of media from across the globe. I recall reading that Jacqueline directed White House and her personal staff to research the funeral proceedings of Abraham Lincoln one-hundred years prior. They studied the procession route, the caisson used to carry the President’s estimated two-thousand pound casket. Many of the Lincoln funeral plans were replicated down to the smallest detail.  

One visible difference involved the final resting place. Jacqueline Kennedy was determined that the legacy and memory of her slain husband’s triumphs and the tragic would never be forgotten. To this end, an “eternal flame” is "central" to the overall design of grave site using pavers spiral outwards. I wonder if Mrs. Kennedy came to plan it as I look upon it today. The flame at the center is the Sun and each spiral ring the universe. As First Lady, she executed her last duty by lighting flame. Over time, it is reminiscent of the Olympic Flame acknowledging endurance and achievement.

Our class of 1964 graduated some 90+ students prepared for High School and equipped with a College Prep curriculum. For eight years, we were crammed in two classrooms. We now know that Public Schools targeted classroom ideal size at a number much lower than 45 of us! I recall that just a few years ago we held our first reunion. I simply marveled at those in attendance who reported their career choices. I believe that among ninety of us there were at least four doctors, 5 or more holding high positions in the big three. 

There was our own Ricky Martin whose "la Vida" was with the UAW training program. Among our class were several teachers, real estate brokers, small business owners, a scientist and a California-based Entertainment Attorney. Can there be any doubt? Gary Andre, the best dancer now striving for Hollywood status. Last, but not least is Fr. Joe Hindlelang, a Marist priest now presiding at Notre Dame High School. Joe went on as I later heard to lead the Marist Mission in the United States.

Forgive me if I missed any other high achievers, as we all were success stories. Was there any doubt WE would succeed. Three years earlier, Sr. Charlotte and all of the dedicated nuns at St. Juliana's drove a strong message home to each of us. The Servite Nuns and Priests preached time after time that to succeed in our lives, college or university education was not an expectation, but a given. We aspired to do great things for our country and ourselves. I believe our dedication originated with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his Inaugural address.

We proudly wore our Catholicism displaying it on our chests. Together, as a class we were to view the entire Inauguration in our classroom from his Oath of Office, the inspirational speech and the parade that followed. I recall my thought that our TV viewing of history unfolding before our eyes was a sort of reward, a break from algebra, word problems and impromptu spelling matches.

Pride became part of me while at St. Juliana's and among wonderful classmates. I thought of all those neighborhood playmates attending class in Detroit Public Schools. I felt empathy for them. They did not know of the disparity in quality education absent the corporal punishment. However, they were lacking that drive to achieve excellence.

Where were you in the beginning of the Kennedy Administration?
     St. Juliana Catholic Elementary School, Detroit, Michigan - January 20, 1961                                                 
On Inauguration Day as a class, we viewed the festivities. We came to focus exclusively and little chatter to the young President as it displayed on the obsolete black and white portable.  Jacqueline appeared at her husband’s side. Together, united not only in marriage but also as collaborators in transferring the stodgy country stuck in the past to the nation dedicated to education, equality in politics, and a vision where Labor and Management might reach parity in stature and closing the gap in earnings. The First Lady would become the epicenter for the Arts, Culture and Music. 

Jacqueline Kennedy is now America’s greatest Ambassador softening the language of Nikita Khrushchev while keeping the heels and sole of his shoes planted on the floor.

John Kennedy stood upon the dais with only his tuxedo jacket between him and an unseasonable frigid climate. His star is rising. He now is above the throngs before him. History will unfold his breath visible in the cold just as he spoke of a “New Frontier” and his “shout out.” “Do not ask of your country what it can do for you –but, ask what YOU can do for your country”. His “visions for America indeed were as lofty as reaching the moon. The change in direction was as a difficult, steep climb up the steps of the Capitol building. 

“We do it, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” He spoke of the America he envisioned that could rise to any occasion and achieve any aspiration.

In the classroom of a modest school as St. Juliana, we were certain President Kennedy "was" speaking directly to all of us.  His ability to speak in a common denominator to all Americans was a “gift.” His frank talk, transparent to the press and in the State of the Union speeches he largely wrote and delivered before Congress, hardened his opposition. The powerful interest and influence of a Military Industrial Complex were to face a formidable foe, JFK is now perceived as a threat to an autocratic government influenced with "big money" 

The enemy of change faced a determined intellectual, a visionary for all races and religions, supporting free enterprise but not at the expense of Labor. He would not bend to a Southern extremism nor turn a blind eye to poverty and racism he espoused to eliminate with a sweeping Civil Rights Bill. 

His self-deprecating humor he presented was sophisticated for the Press Corps and as earthy and understandable from coal miners to autoworkers, migrant workers and mid-management. John Kennedy rose to a level achieved like no before. 

His every mannerism endeared television audiences and throngs of humanity abroad. He could grasp complex issues critical to foreign governments and mesmerized the populations in Europe including those locked behind the Iron Curtain. Just as another hero rose in another arena, Mohammad Ali, he outclassed every opponent in the political ring. He out-maneuvered his harshest enemies in national debates by allowing his opponent to expose their every flaw. 

The Congressional and Corporate opposition came to perspire profusely. The confidence he held under crisis-disarmed missiles ninety miles from our shore. The charisma he exuded in the Camelot of the White House may have triggered a hastily orchestrated coup d’état.   

A chill runs the length of my spine whenever I hear a sound bite or come across quotes from the Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961. President Kennedy delivered the words, catch phrases directed to our nation's youth. President Kennedy succeeded. Those words would ignite fervor within us then, and through all the days to follow. His words resonate fifty years later just as it did on Inauguration Day. 

As the new youthful President, John F. Kennedy with a distinct New England accent he spoke for the World not only to hear, but also to heed his challenge and cautions.

  “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Addendum, Notes and Conspirators

This personal Narrative is dedicated to the Class of ’64, a group of  95+ survivors of
8 years of study and penance under the supervision and the grace of the wonderful, Pius and corporal Sisters of the Servite Order.

St. Juliana Elementary
9801 Chalmers,
Detroit, Michigan 48213. 

"Two heads are better than One when it's time to clang together" one elderly Sister (name is withheld) would say.

Although the Parish is closed, the school remains quite (Dis)-Functional serving grades K - 8 in the eastside community. The school maintains its reputation of  high academic standards blended with a sister of Sacred Heart dose of discipline. 

St. Juliana retains its tradition as a High School Prep curriculum, Although, to many in our class will describe the no-nonsense, heavy homework regimen as a precursor to the Head-Start Program. It is aptly described as "pre-university" and "demonstration" training for later in the decade. However, there are always in every class those few "hooligans" and "devilish children" who stray, find only Public School admissions and go on varied paths on the road to incarceration.

Today is much better as St. Juliana provides the educational tools for students to go on to their chosen career path and become model citizens of Detroit. 

Our class is rumored to be planning a 50 Year Reunion sometime in 2014. Location is evidently secret as well as the date. If the Reunion does come off as Our "Golden Anniversary" there is but only one  worthy to be the King. That regal position can only be filled by one. 

After years of Servitude, I shall be given my due, corrugated, prostrated and showered with the weekly cash "My Offering" envelopes. Only then, hallowing me as the golden boy who thought he knew too much. Later, had the lead role in our Eighth grade performance as the growling beast...I mean Priest.