Hello Idaho by Robert Ehlert: A childhood memory of the Kennedy assassination

November 9, 2013 

JFK Files Still Sealed

President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy ride in the back seat of an open limousine on Main Street at Ervay Street in Dallas as the presidential motorcade approaches Dealey Plaza Nov. 22, 1963.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

Though I don't consider my memory of President John F. Kennedy's assassination to be any better or worse than anybody else's, I believe it is equally unshakeable.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I was in an elementary school classroom in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Davenport, Iowa.

The student body had outgrown its accommodations in the main building across the street. I was in a shared 4th- and 5th-grade makeshift classroom just off the "secret" underground passageway between the rectory, where the priests lived, and the church.

At about 1:30 p.m., Father Meyer appeared suddenly from the passageway. He abruptly interrupted our lesson and signaled for Sister Mary Lester to follow him into the hallway.

His face was ashen and contorted with concern. He whispered something to Sister and she immediately burst into tears. She could not fully compose herself or even stand up straight.

As Father Meyer left, she gripped one of the desks - my desk - and found a bit of balance, her draped, oversized rosary beads clanging against the metal side of the desk as she swooned to and fro. The normally stoic and unflappable nun's body language and sorrowful look set the stage for a shocking announcement.

"Children, President Kennedy has been shot ... he's been taken to a hospital and ... he's dead," she said, the phrasing interrupted by emotions overtaking her attempts to communicate.

We heard footsteps above as parishioners began to fill the pews and fill the air with prayer for our country. One of the brighter kids whose home was equipped with a bomb shelter, as I recall, surmised that this might be an opportune time for "the Russians to attack."

Kennedy, a Catholic, was a heroic figure for parochial schools. Handsome, charming and witty, he was a model for young men and something to measure suitors by for young women. His beautiful wife and storybook family were a standard.

He couldn't be dead. And assassinated? My father had often shared anecdotes about World War II. It was a time to wonder if World War III would erupt in the days ahead.

We were all sent home. It was still daylight. Unlike my six siblings who were glued to the news events on the black-and-white TV, I climbed the towering pine tree in front of our house in an attempt to process. I would have stayed there into the night if not for my mother's comforting call to dinner.

These are my memories. What are yours?

If we receive letters or Reader's Views on JFK, we will package them in the coming days.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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