It started out like every other Friday morning. I walked the mile to Arminta Street School in the Los Angeles area and, because I was assigned the role of flag monitor by the principal, I raised the American and state flag up the pole.
During the morning recess, I happened to glance toward the school office and saw the flag pole but not Old Glory so I walked up to tell the secretaries that the flag had slipped down the pole but that I would set it right. They started to cry and I couldn't understand what was so upsetting about the flag having slipped.
Then a teacher, Mr. Schlewin, in a very formal and serious tone looked at me and said, "Billy, the flag has been lowered to half-staff because President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed this morning." In hindsight, I sensed he was so formal because he knew a person would remember where they were when they first heard the news.
He was right, I remember that moment. I remember other aspects of that day. I remember our teacher talking about the word assassination and how and why it is used instead of murder for an elected leader. We heard about Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley in that day's lesson.
As I walked home that afternoon, the streets seemed to have fewer cars and people I passed were not smiling.
I began to think how this event would change things for me. Thoughts turned to my dad who, shall we say detested the Kennedy brothers. He would come home each evening, grab the afternoon paper off the porch, and state something to the tune of, "Let's see how the Kennedy's have fouled up things today."
So I figured dad would be in a fairly good mood. I was wrong on that account. When he arrived, I asked if he had heard the news and I was told he had and then he announced how upsetting it was to him. I asked why, since he did not care for President Kennedy and I learned from my dad on that Friday in November the concept of "Ballots and not bullets."
He was very angry at the assassin and hoped he would be tried, convicted and sentenced accordingly. "Dammit" he said. "How dare he kill MY President!" I learned a great deal that afternoon about where political differences ended and citizenship begins.
Friday evenings were Scout meeting nights and so my dad, brother, and I headed off to Campbell Hall School for the Troop 139 meeting. Mr. Campbell, the Scoutmaster, held a regular type meeting until it came to the time for Scoutmaster's minute.
Mr. Campbell's minutes usually lasted 5 or 6 minutes but this evening was different. We all knew he was a staunch Republican who had been born in Canada and become a US citizen many years before. He started in on the horrific events of the day and 45 minutes later he stopped. The 90-plus boys of Troop 139 got a civics lesson that evening on how a nation should be governed and it did not ever involve the gunning down of our President.
I came home with a clearer understanding of the principles of liberty, justice, and rule of law. The next day, I was glued to the TV, having always been a "news-junkie" and watched the reports from Dallas and Washington DC. I remember Mrs. Kennedy in the blood-stained dress, the casket coming off the plane, the reports of the killing of Officer Tippit in Dallas, and the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald. We learned of places called the Texas Book Depository, Dealy Plaza, and Parkland Hospital.
On that Sunday, the 24th, a new name came into our world Jack Ruby. When he shot Oswald, I happened to be watching the TV program live and when I went into the kitchen to tell my folks that Oswald had been shot. They told me I was confused and reminded me that Oswald had shot the president. I convinced them to look at the television and they heard the news as well. School was out the next day for the president's funeral and I watched the rider-less horse, world leaders pay homage, Catholic Cardinal Cushing recite mass and John Jr.'s salute to his daddy. I watched the eternal flame be lit and then America began to handle the normal parts of life.
They moved the Kennedy's items out of the White House and President Johnson's items in. The Constitution held us together because we knew the order of succession and we are a nation of laws.
When I returned to class at Arminta Street School that Tuesday Mrs. Lowe started our lessons and life began to return to normal but Friday, November 22, 1963 was a day we lost our president and the kids in my sixth grade class saw a part of life that I hope we never see again. I learned that, on that day, there were no republicans and no democrats, only Americans.