from my memoir Beautiful Mountain
I never really liked the movie Camelot. It came out later when I was in junior high school. But, back in grade school, we were all mesmerized by the Kennedys. Everybody in Beaumont wanted to be John John and Caroline. They were our answer to what royalty was.
So, when Mrs. Smith came into our classroom and started to whisper in Mrs. Jarisch’s ear, we perked up, us fourth graders. They only interrupted class for really important things back then. Like the time I stood up on the toilet seat to holler out at my friend Leah Beth and the Pentecostal girl accused me of trying to see her naked parts. They called a class-wide emergency assembly for all the girls with a big speech on the importance of privacy. Everybody knew it was because of the full gospel girl who always wore the long navy blue sailor dress and had waist-length hair. We called her Chrissy doll because it looked like the toy where you turned the dial and her long blonde hair grew and grew.
But, this time, the whisper wasn’t about somebody in a bathroom stall. Mrs. Jarisch stepped up to the front of the room and took the teacher’s podium with each hand clasped white. She was blinking back tears. It was strange as she was a masculine-looking woman with short cropped black hair. You didn’t think of her ever crying and it felt uncomfortable. Scary.
“Children, something awful has happened in our country. You know President Kennedy has been visiting over in Dallas.” At that point, her voice broke and she looked down. We looked around, unsure of how to respond.
I remember Yancy Franklin with his big eyes. He looked like Whitey on Leave it to Beaver and sat right across from me. We always walked home from school together and he was good at telling jokes. But, today, he sat there wide-eyed like the rest of us, waiting to find out what had happened.
“Our president, John F. Kennedy has been shot.”
You could hear a huge collective audible gasp in the classroom. The Pentecostal girl whose name I sincerely cannot remember even though she’d had a huge impact on me, began to cry out loud. It was disconcerting, because it sounded like when people cried on The Edge of Night, the show Do and I watched every afternoon when I’d get home. The people on the series would bust into tears and make loud noises that didn’t sound real. Do and I would always laugh at them for not crying like good actors.
A couple of the other girls began to follow suit and cry out loud like she was doing. She’d even worked up some tears and her face became splotchy. I couldn’t help but remember her holding court out on the playground when President Kennedy had been elected and talking about Satan being in the White House since the president was a Catholic.
She also had inside information about Armageddon which she’d tell all the other kids about. The world, according to her pastor at the full gospel church she attended, was always coming to an end. Funny thing, it usually occurred on Fridays. I didn’t have any reason to suspect it wasn’t true, but was always surprised when the getting out of school bell rang on Friday afternoon and we were all still intact. I wondered, though, how the world was going to end. Would it be in a blaze of fire or a big storm like when Noah built the ark? Or maybe outer space traveling ships would come down from another planet and kidnap us like what went on at the Gaylynn kiddie shows.
But, today I just sat there in my desk feeling kind of numb. I didn’t have anything against President Kennedy and wondered who would want to shoot him? All the girls trying to out cry each other took a little bit of the sting away. I found a kind of comfort in not having to show some big public remorse as they went on with the hysterics.
Mrs. Jarisch collected herself and went on. “Children, this is a big and horrible day for all of us. We are going to file down to the auditorium shortly so that Mrs. Bean can make a formal announcement.” Lurleen Bean was the school principal. She was tall and wore the same color of Windsor Rose lipstick my grandmother wore. Her hair was pink-toned gray cut in short curls. She went to Mary’s Beauty Salon where Do went and where I had a standing Friday afternoon appointment after school let out.
My grandparents were Goldwater people, but they also respected the office of the president and had taught me likewise. They were distraught like the rest of the world when Walter Cronkite made the announcement that President Kennedy had died at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. And, I remember when he cried on tv, Mr. Cronkite.