Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering Camelot ~ A Short Story


November 22, 1963:

The school day began with excitement. The cheerleaders were stopping everybody in the halls, trying to sell them spirit ribbons for the big game tonight. There were banners up all down the halls, saying "Beat the Crossroads Cougars!" The football players had decorations on their lockers. It was a big celebration all day as we got revved up about our championship game tonight. We were all proud and a little cocky, believing that we were only hours away from a state football championship win. Any high school in Texas would have reacted the same way.

Right after lunch, I gathered my books from my locker and headed to biology lab. We were dissecting a frog, and my partner and I had ours pinned to the board. Christie had made the first incision and I was peeling back the skin with my tweezers, trying not to gag at the scent of formaldehyde. The lab door opened and Mrs. Curry from the history class across the hall stepped in and motioned to Mr. Skelton to join her. There was something about her face that made me watch her rather than return my attention to our splayed frog.

I watched the two teachers in a whispered conversation, then saw Mr. Skelton’s face turn pale. As Mrs. Curry slipped out the door, he turned to the class, looking sick to his stomach. In a hoarse voice he said, "Class, I have something to tell you." Everyone quieted and turned their eyes his direction. "It appears that President Kennedy has been shot," he said in a disbelieving voice. Several people gasped, and everyone looked stricken, no one uttering a word. He cleared his throat, obviously struggling for control. "We are all going to the library where there is a TV set up, and we can watch the news report."

I glanced down at the gaping frog on the table, and felt a wave of nausea. I quickly dropped the tweezers and scraped my chair back with all the others in the room. We filed in shock down the hall, meeting lines of other students, all of us walking like zombies through a silent hallway. On the TV, they kept showing shots of Parkland Hospital in Dallas as policemen and secret service agents stood near the emergency room doors, keeping crowds away from the entrance. There was sketchy information, and Walter Cronkite continued to remind us of the details of the President’s trip to Texas.  Everything had happened so quickly in the motorcade through downtown Dallas, and everyone on television was speculating about the President’s injuries. It was all so horrifying and unreal.

No one in the library was talking or cutting up. We couldn't take our eyes off the television screen. Occasionally, some of the girls would cry softly, and all of us looked like we wanted to. After a length of time that seemed to stretch forever, Mr. Cronkite announced with emotion that the president was dead. Then all of us began to cry, even some of the boys and the teachers.

We continued to sit, riveted to the unfolding news reports. Eventually the day ended; the school principal announced over the speaker system that the football game scheduled for tonight had been postponed until next week. We all whispered together as we left the building, headed for home. Mama was parked in front of the high school, waiting for me. We drove home, mostly in silence, and once inside the house, we walked into the living room without comment and turned on the TV. When it warmed up and the picture appeared, it was a repeat of all the newsreels I had seen all afternoon—the same photos, over and over, with no one seeming to be able to grasp what had happened. Mama looked up when Daddy came home from work, but made no attempt to cook dinner. Finally, as we sat in our darkened living room with faces angled toward the television, Mama got up and went to put three TV dinners in the oven. When they were ready, we all sat at our TV trays in darkness, numb, watching the unbelievable scene repeated onscreen of Vice President Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. Mama just kept muttering, "I can't believe it" over and over. I finally got up and went to my room. I flopped on the bed and the tears finally turned loose in a flood. It is all so unbelievable. I can't think what happens next. How can anything normal happen after this????

November 30, 1963:

The whole town turned out for the final state championship game tonight. It was unthinkable to play the game last week after the President was killed. Thanksgiving this week complicated rescheduling the game. Our principal and the football coach met with UIL officials to discuss postponing the game, so it was rescheduled during Thanksgiving break.

Everyone’s emotions were raw from the events surrounding John F. Kennedy's death last week. It hardly seemed right to be playing a football game tonight in light of all that is happening in our country. We all found it difficult to feel enthusiastic about what was taking place on the field, but we did our best to cheer our boys to victory.

Instead of our band’s usual half-time marching routine, we marched solemnly onto the field to a somber drum cadence and the announcer said there would be a silent tribute to President Kennedy. Then all of us band members dropped to one knee and bowed our heads. After a few minutes of silence, the announcer led a brief prayer for our nation, for the Kennedy family, and for the Johnson family, and we solemnly and silently marched back off the field and into the stands.

The game was a close one, and both sides fought fiercely, as if battling in a war zone. Our team won with a touchdown in the last two minutes, the final score 21-18. We were proud to win, but it was a subdued victory. It almost felt like we had fought a fierce enemy, and that the victory ushered us into a strange new world.

On the two-hour bus ride back home, we were mostly silent, with only a few whispered conversations. No one had the heart for the usual songs, chants, and laughter that often accompanied our trips home. I sat by the window, feeling the cold windowpane against my cheek as I watched the dark landscape slide past. Many of the fields were bare now from the cotton harvest, with only the sight of an occasional cotton harvester’s headlights beaming out in the field. We passed isolated farms, quiet at the end of the day, perhaps with a glowing light from inside the farmhouse the only indication of the presence of life. The bus passed through small towns on our way back to our own village, and streets were deserted. Their residents were likely holed up in their homes, maybe still enjoying leftover turkey, perhaps silently trying to grasp how their world had dramatically shifted in the past eight days.

November 2013:

Looking back from the vantage point of fifty years later, my own worldview had been turned upside down in 1963. At fifteen, I was just beginning to ease my big toe into the adult world around me. I didn’t know much about politics, other than what I heard the adults around me discuss. There had been skepticism about the President when he was elected, but many felt he had handled the Bay of Pigs situation with strength and bravery. We had discussed it in my Civics class and I had certainly respected Mr. Kennedy as the leader of our country. Who could keep from getting caught up in the romance and excitement of our vibrant young president and his charming wife? They were the fairy-tale family, and most of us were enamored of the Camelot that played out before us on television and displayed on magazine covers.

Now it had all been blown apart by a senseless assassination. I had read stories about the assassination of President Lincoln, but who would have ever imagined we would know first-hand the meaning of that word in our own generation?


The story you have just read is part fact, part fiction. I actually wrote it a couple of years ago to be included in a piece I was writing about the 1960s. I drew from my own memories of that very dramatic historical period, but altered the actual facts to fit the storyline. I found that all the emotions were still intact, however, because no matter one’s age, a person does not experience something this profound without being changed.

There are some occasions in life when you realize instantly that your world has just been significantly altered—that nothing will ever be the same again. The first such time in my lifespan occurred when my grandma died in 1954. The second one happened on November 22, 1963. In recent years, the most dramatic shift impacted my world on September 11, 2001.

Those moments are forever etched in our memories, for we realize at those times that the world tilts a different direction, and all we have known as stable and steady slides to one side and careens out of control until we can regain our footing once again.

John Kennedy’s death truly felt like the end of Camelot to many people. A few years following his death, I was to watch the movie Camelot and hear these words to the theme song, which may have very aptly described the idealistic world many of us lived in until the end of 1963: 

"In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot."