Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Friday, November 22, 1963

On Friday, November 22, 1963 I was eight years old.

I remember that day . . . that time in my life and the life of our country.

I was in attendance at the Flint Elementary School . . . Mrs. Grave's 2nd Grade Class. Our room was the second of a three-room Chicken Coop-like building.

First, Second, and Third Grades were set apart from the High School building. The highest grade in the school was the Ninth.


After we came back from lunch - our teacher seemed upset and distracted. I don't recall her teaching a lesson or communicating to us. Other teachers were coming to the door of our classroom . . . they spoke with each other in muted whispers, covering their mouths, shaking their heads, wiping tears.

We all knew that something was wrong . . . we must have displayed our anxiety because Mrs. Graves finally told us . . . our President has been shot.

I'm sure that I didn't know what a President was or who our President was . . . but I would soon learn.

I was about to join our entire country in a tragic crash course in American History and become a part of a unique American grief and mourning.

It was very near time to board our school buses and go home when we were finally told the terrible news. Regardless of how little we knew . . . we were all awash with the sadness, shock, and worry that radiated from our teachers. We rode home in unusual silence.

When I arrived at home on Truman Avenue in Decatur, Alabama, I saw my Grandmother (Ruby Browning) sitting close to the front of the television . . . watching and listening intently. She acknowledged my presence by informing me, "The President is dead." 

My only experience with death in my eight years was the passing of my Grandfather, Ronald Browning. He had been killed in a traffic accident in Athens, Alabama when I was five or six years old. The recollection was still in my mind.

My Grandfather (Big Daddy) died before we moved to Truman Avenue . . . I remember that my Mother (Elizabeth Bain) learned about the death of her Father by hearing his passing announced on the radio. The Sick Call program from Athens (a daily public service broadcast program that announced the local people who were in the hospital, or sick at home or in the nursing home. Memorial visitations, funerals, and burials were announced as well) had made the mistake of announcing the death before everyone in the family had been informed.

Our family soon gathered at the home of my Aunt, Maybell King. She was Big Daddy's sister and she would host the entire family before the funeral. My Grandfather's body was prepared by the local funeral home to lie in state at Aunt Bell's house. A casket holding my Grandfather's remains was set up in her living room for two days as family members and friends visited to grieve and pay their respects. A gauze covering was draped over the open lid of the casket . . . I can still see all of the encompassing images in my mind. I don't remember being disturbed or frightened . . . but I do recall a lasting sense of mystification and wonder.

I clearly remember Mother taking me to see him (he and my Grandmother were divorced) on several occasions after we moved from Michigan (where I and my brother were born) back to Alabama. I can remember sitting on his knee and hearing him talk to me and smile. I had no idea for many years what a tumultuous life he had lived or what hardness and sadness he had caused in the lives of his family and among his friends. The fact that my Mother visited him and his second wife in their home . . . and took her children to meet him . . . is a reflection of her great character and grace.

Big Daddy had died unexpectedly and tragically at the intersection Pryor Street and Highway 31 in Athens. I have traveled past that intersection or through that place many times in my life . . . and I always think of him . . . every time. I knew so little of him as a child . . . I've come to know more about him as I have talked with others who knew him or knew about him.

"The President is dead."

Even at eight I had an experience that could connect my young mind to the tragic and unexpected death of another person.

For the next days Little Mama and my Mother sat in front of the television . . . they silently absorbed every word of news that they could hear about the tragedy. We even attended President Kennedy's funeral and burial via the TV broadcasts.

I didn't understand everything that I was seeing and hearing about that time . . . over the years I have taken a great interest in reading and studying about the assassination and all of the history that still swirls around it. So, I know more . . . but still not everything.

"The President is dead."

"OUR President is dead."

John F. Kennedy may have been the very last US President whom ALL Americans followed and embraced. It seems that for all of us . . . he was our President.

Much of our unity, country, and innocence died on Friday, November 22, 1963. We lost much that we will never regain.

Not all Americans voted to elect President Kennedy . . . and he was not a perfect man, son, brother, husband, father or a flawless politician or leader.

But he became our President.

He was a Democrat, but he was respected, honored, and often supported by Republicans. We have all become aware of his many moral foibles and failures, but that knowledge has not, somehow, diminished our regard and fondness for him. He was the King of Camelot and most Americans adored him, his wife and children. He was never our President because he was perfect, or honest, or moral . . . or because all of his political policies were correct or acceptable to every American.

No one rioted or protested in the streets when he was elected . . . and almost everyone mourned when he died.

How could an eight year old kid from Alabama remember the words, "Ask not what your Country can do for you . . . but ask . . . what YOU can do . . . for your Country," as it was delivered in a political speech?

​On the day that he died all Americans lost someone . . . something . . . that may never be reclaimed.

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