Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Death of Innocence

Thanksgiving Day, 2007. A day for festive food and football, family and friends, and that perennial favorite, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It is the one day each year when people are most likely to spell my last name correctly. It’s not Macey, Masey, Massey, or even Mason, but just a simple four-letter-word: Macy.

But this post isn’t going to focus on family history, it is going to examine an intersection between personal and national history. I want to ramble about one of those highly significant days that was so cataclysmic and historic that anyone who lived through it, and was old enough, can remember exactly what they were doing at the time. The date: November 22, 1963, forty-four years ago today. The event: the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

I was a sophomore in high school in the resort town of Noel, Missouri, that November. Our class was small, twenty some young people in a school population, 1st grade through 12th grade, of probably less than 300 students. Our school was four blocks off of Main Street, in a quiet part of a quiet town. Many of the students walked home for lunch every day, and some even walked down to Main Street and ate at the local drug store. We had an hour for lunch, and the concept of a closed campus was unheard of.

I had eaten lunch at school that day and was sitting in the study hall room talking to friends when the news first started to come in. Melvin, a senior who had just returned from having lunch at home, began spreading the word that he had seen on television that President Kennedy had been shot. Ten minutes or so later when the bell rang to go back to class, the word had filtered throughout the school.

My memory of the rest of the day is that everybody was too stunned to focus on school. Some kids were openly sobbing, and most of the others had a bewildered look that seemed to say, “What do we do now?” The school had no televisions to wheel into the classrooms in 1963, so we were left knowing something terrible was occurring, but unable to follow events. Some kids did go home to watch the story unfold on television, but most of us stayed in class and tried to concentrate on school.

Sometime that afternoon our superintendent, Mr. Bill Spears, held and all-school assembly and we all marched into the bleachers in the gymnasium. There he told us that President Kennedy had died. The crying spread through much of the student body as he tried to continued by letting us know that school would dismiss at the regular time that day. My dad was on the school board, and I learned later that Mr. Spears had contacted all of the board members and asked if he should let school out early. Somehow they had come to the conclusion to keep school in session in the pursuit of normalcy.

Years later I was principal of that same little school, by then a K-8 facility. Our music teacher was Coradell Alexander. She had been teaching music at Noel for decades by the time I came back to lead the school. Mrs. Alexander and I were visiting one day about the assassination, and she told me that Mr. Spears had been bewildered and had told staff that he had no idea what to do that day. No one had ever been through a presidential assassination before.

Two days after the President was killed I was quail hunting with my dad and a family friend when we heard the news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot. I had been stunned by the death of the President, but the shooting of Oswald made me feel that the world was suddenly very out of control. (Somehow I think that feeling has persisted from that day to this.)

Mr. Spears cancelled school on the day of President Kennedy’s funeral. It was a nationally televised event and I was glued to the set. I remember scenes of Charles DeGaulle, Prince Phillip, Haile Selassie, and scores of other world leaders marching in somber cadence behind the catafalque that was carrying the President. I also remember a television image of Lady Bird Johnson sitting in the White House, sipping a drink, and laughing with a group of dignitaries. It looked very uncaring, and my first thought was how did they get Jackie and the kids moved out so quickly. (I went on to become a great fan of Lady Bird’s, but I always thought that she looked a little to eager that day to be the Queen Bee.)

And life went on after that. Everyone, even high school kids in the Ozarks, seemed to know that our country had changed in irreversible ways. We had crossed a drawbridge and were stepping into a very different place, and in the background we could hear the bridge being raised. It was severing us from our innocence.

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