Friday, November 22, 2013

A Half-Century Ago

Credit: wikipedia
22 November 1963. Jean and I were both working as laboratory technicians for the E.I. duPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, DE. That’s where we met. I was running a test in the processing area, where experiments were run on a larger scale to try to replicate what was seen in the lab. Suddenly the door swung open and someone yelled to tell us the president had been shot. I could feel myself flush, and that moment has lived with me to such a degree that a half century later, if the building and facilities still exist, I could today show you exactly where I stood at that moment.
Most of the people that will read this weren’t even alive then, or were small children, and can never understand how this moment could so imprint us that we will never outlive that moment. The only possible comparisons would be by people that lived through the Pearl Harbor attack, the destruction of the Twin Towers, or such a similar large-scale catastrophe. To this day, I cannot hear or watch President John F. Kennedy speak without a lump forming in my throat. How could the death of one man so instantly impact millions of people?

I’d flounder trying to put an explanation into words. The fact is that in life and death, that’s the influence and impact he had---to create a foreign influence and respect that our nation has never experienced since, to strengthen the United Nations and League of Nations, to lead us into the Age of Space, to create the Peace Corps, to take the greatest steps since Lincoln to eliminate racial segregation and discrimination, to steer the nation through a nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union, to promote the arts as an essential and uplifting ingredient in life, and numerous things more. Perhaps equally important was the fact that Kennedy was not just the nation’s president. Throughout his short time in office, he was the people’s president.

Jean and I were both drawn by the need to somehow respond to what had happened. I also was working part-time for the state’s largest newspaper, the News-Journal. I was excused from my normal work schedule there to go to Washington to witness the funeral and write a local-perspective article. For many years I kept the aluminum engraving plate used for Kennedy’s portrait that accompanied the article. The portrait was a file photo from President Kennedy’s dedication of the Delaware Turnpike shortly before his trip to Dallas.

When the president was being flown back to Washington, we drove to D.C. On Saturday following the assassination, the president’s flag-draped casket lay in state in the East Room of the White House. On Sunday, a horse-drawn caisson carried him to the Capitol Building where the public could pay their respects. The line of people waiting to pay their respects stretched 40 blocks, or roughly ten miles. We stood in line for hours to file by his casket and military guard of Green Berets in the rotunda. It must have been the early morning hours when we left the Capitol. Wanting to remain near, we slept the best we could on the cold sidewalk in front of the White House the rest of the night. To move about, we had to step between the legs and bodies of the thousands of other people keeping us company. The next morning, as the funeral procession was assembling, we were asked to move to the sidewalk across the street in Lafayette Square. It was from there that we watched the procession being led back from the Capital to the White House led by the Marine Band and the Scottish Black Watch pipe band. While the rest of the precession continued on, a Marine guard accompanied the cortege to the North Portico. From there, they walked to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral, and went later across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery.

With the huge number of foreign dignitaries present and the crowd that had now assembled, we knew we stood no chance of actually being able to witness the burial, so we headed home. We returned to Washington weeks later to visit the grave and eternal flame.

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