I don’t recall the weather, but I’m guessing it was cool but pleasant, as New Jersey’s November days around Thanksgiving tend to be. Most of that day was spent indoors, watching television. Normal programming had been canceled until after JFK’s funeral, replaced with news, documentaries, and solemn music. Like the air in a punctured balloon, joy fled the Smith household.
A night-out with friends was called off. It didn’t feel right to enjoy ourselves while the President’s body lie in state. Besides Betty and I were too engrossed with the happenings in Washington to bother preparing proper meals. The kids had to survive on their own that day and the following two, for their school was closed on Monday in honor of the President’s funeral. Speak about a lost weekend; this was one for the entire country.
Newspapers with graphic photographs of past events involving JFK were scattered across our family room floor. I guzzled strong black coffee while skimming the printed word, time and again returning to the headline, “A Futile Race with Death.” I was drawn to its photograph of a speeding limousine, with flags whipping on the front fenders, police motorcycle escorts, and a Secret Service agent leaning forward as though to shield the occupants. Where was that protection moments before? But the most poignant image was the heel and sole of the President’s shoe protruding over the side of the open car.
Before long the TV announcer, whispering as though he was in church, recaptured my attention.
Resting beneath the American flag that he had so valiantly served, Kennedy’s body was borne from the White House to the Capitol on the same artillery caisson that had 18-years earlier transported the remains of FDR. To the haunting cadence of drums, the coffin preceded a lonely flag-bearer, holding the standard of the departed Chief Executive. Next came a skittish, riderless black mount with cavalry boots reversed in the stirrups. That was all, no open cars, no parade of dignitaries. As the small procession passed, the 300,000 who had lined Pennsylvania Avenue stared in silence, while the TV announcer droned on. “We’re observing a symbolic rite that dates back centuries. The boots are reversed to signify a view back on the person’s career. In ancient times, the horse would have been sacrificed at the burial.”
In the Rotunda beneath the statue of Abraham Lincoln, JFK’s flag-draped bier reclined on same catafalque on which the body of Lincoln rested 98-years before.
Betty and I were mesmerized by live pictures of Jackie and young Caroline kneeling and praying at the flag-draped coffin. Tears flowed freely when Jackie leaned over and kissed the flag. Outside, the crowd noise was at a minimum, politeness at a maximum. Grief stricken fathers tried to explain the gravity of the events to their sons.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield included in his tribute, “The sound of laughter and in a moment it was no more. And so, she took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands, and kissed him, and closed the lid of the coffin.”
From House Speaker John McCormack, we heard, “Surely no country ever faced more gigantic problems than John F. Kennedy. For he has now taken his place among the great figures of world history.”
But it was the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren that struck a cord with my feelings. “… forces of hatred and malevolence are eating their way into the bloodstream of American life. It has been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn.”
Recurring news from Texas would periodically interrupt the broadcast. Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the Texas Book Depository, and the husband of Russian-born Marina, had been arrested. Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry said that photographs found in Oswald’s home linked him with the rifle used in Kennedy’s assassination. Oswald was charged with murdering the President, killing a Dallas policeman, and assault with intent to murder Governor Connally.
The mail-order rifle cost $12.78.