Saturday, November 22, 2008

Where Were You?

Forty-five years ago I was a tenth grader seated at my desk in Mr. Ryan's World History class. We were covering the period of history surrounding the Holy Roman Empire.

He had just uttered, "The Holy Roman Empire was no empire. It wasn't Roman. And there was nothing holy about it."

Just then the door to the classroom burst open. From the hallway entered Eddie Owens, a senior. He made the terse but sad announcement, "Mr. Ryan, President Kennedy has been shot. He's dead!"

There was stunned silence in the classroom as the door closed and Eddie disappeared.

Mr. Ryan was visibly disturbed. He spoke not another word but began closing his books and piling them in a neat stack at the corner of his desk. He bent down and picked up his briefcase. He opened it and picked up a stack of papers that were earmarked to be a test he was going to give us that afternoon. He placed them in the open case and then next placed his books on top of them. He closed it and returned it to the floor next to his desk.

He touched his fingers together in front of his chest and started to say something. I guess the words got stuck because no words came forth. His hands appeared to be shaking. His jaw was trembling. He turned, looked up at the clock on the wall and walked to the door.

He made no verbal attempt to excuse himself and walked out of the classroom. When the door closed behind him, myself and my classmates were in open mouth shock. We each looked at one another, hoping someone would have the proper thing to say. Only Beverly Miller next to me broke the silence when she cried out, "Oh my God!"

Handkerchiefs and tissues were produced and handed around. In nearly every pair of eyes there was a display of corner tears. Even the guys who aren't supposed to cry, especially in the line of sight of others, were weepy.

We, all twenty of us, sat there in morbid silence. None of us ventured from our respective chairs - not until the class bell rang twenty minutes later.

The halls of the school were like so many morgues. If ever total silence could make a sound, so it was it was deafening that afternoon. Lockers when opened and closed were done so in calculated gentle efforts. None were slammed, none were kicked shut. As we piled out of the school to the awaiting buses that would transport us to our homes, it was done so in an orderly fashion as if choreographed. The steps of every individual, some 250 strong, were carefully placed as if there were only eggshells instead of tile covered concrete to support us.

That's the way it was, that afternoon of the 22nd of November, 1963.

We didn't have cell phones in 1963. There was no Internet. We had to wait until we got home to watch in black and white an obviously devastated Walter Cronkite as he related what few details there were available. There was no CNN in the sixties, no Fox news, only three networks. Updates were slow in coming. Cable television was a fantastic idea yet to be realized.

There are certain events in all of our lives in which we can remember where we were and what we were doing at the time. Most of such memories for me usually revolved around births, weddings and funerals of loved ones. Of course, there were some sporting events of the sixties I can remember - Roger Maris' 61st home run; Cassius Clay knocking out Sonny Liston; Ted Williams batting .406, to name a few.

In more modern times I can remember where I was when Greg Phelan caught the Hail-Mary pass that would give Doug Flutie the Heisman Trophy. There was the shock and the thrill when after 86 years the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series again.

It isn't only sports that I remember so vividly. There was the day I graduated from high school, the day I was discharged from the U.S. Navy, the day I was married, and the day my daughter was born. Those events were certainly more important than so many others.

However, it is the date of 11/22/63, above all others, that I can remember even the most insignificant detail of the day. I remember:
the clothes I wore; having my first ever drag from a cigarette in the boys room and coughing my head off until I threw up; necking with Cathy behind the field house and then sitting with Sandy at lunch in the cafeteria; trading a bologna sandwich for a pb&j sandwich; scoring 16 of the 20 points for my team in an intramural basketball game; acing an English Lit test on "The Lord of the Flies"; and in the same class made to recite from memory "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer as punishment for drawing an unflattering cartoon of a classmate; a ballpoint pen leaking and leaving a large blot in the pocket of my favorite shirt; taking a leak on the tires of the car belonging to the Chemistry teacher who gave me a "D" the previous semester;

and then there was Mr. Ryan's World History class ...
Where were you? What were you doing?

(I chose not to post a Poodle Doodles cartoon or inject any humor today. It didn't seem proper or fitting for this date.)

№ 1533


Peter said...

A good post Mike, I have no recollection of what I was doing but the impact even in Australia was huge... a bit like 9/11.

Jack K. said...

I was a 1st Lt. assigned to the 720th MP Bn at Ft. Hood, TX. I was walking through the company area when the word was passed. Little did I know then that I would be in Viet Nam within a year.

It was a sad day.

It is still a sad day.

How far have we progressed since then?

In some respects it has gotten worse because more and more people are losing their humanity. Or are they?


Thanks for the reminder.

Christina said...

Good post. I wasn't born yet, but I know this was a hugely momentous day in the lives of everyone who was alive at the time.

Sandee said...

I too was in school. I so remember this day in history. Everyone was in shock. Great post. :)