Fifty years have passed, and yet the moment remains as clear as yesterday. For most of us, high school graduation meant an emotional severing of the umbilical cord. But that moment, November 22, 1963 had an immediate impact on all of us who lived through it: The shot heard around the world.
At the University of Pennsylvania, I had been studying all night for a freshman chemistry exam scheduled for that fateful Friday afternoon. My mind rambled toward the end of the exam, the end of the weekend and, finally, to the following week when I would go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends.
It was about 1:30 the next day when I donned a black poplin jacket and left Bishop White, my dormitory. My first steps outside forced me to shield my sensitive and still dry eyes from the sun’s glare. I ceased drumming the numerous equations into my consciousness and plodded numbly toward the Physical Sciences building. My body and mind seemed disconnected as my legs propelled me forward.
I can still feel that hand thumping on my shoulder, invading my lonely privacy, and I still hear that troubled and tremulous voice beckoning to me: “Hey you! Hey you!” he was saying, “The President was just shot.”
President shot? My mind ran: “What President?” He answered my thought: “Yes the President—Kennedy was just shot.” My already dazed mind was spinning like a roulette wheel, not wanting to stop to take in what he had just said. “He’s crazy,” I thought. I was in no mood for joking, and I became angry.
But the stranger tugged at me relentlessly and that wild look in his eyes changed my anger to fright. I ran ahead to the nearest two students and saw similar agonizing looks. Those with radios turned them up and suddenly the city was on the air.
My mind was searching for an escape, not an exam room. I walked on, weak and nauseous, by force of habit. When I arrived at the exam room, my instructor’s smile betrayed his ignorance. I blurted out the news, but he did not want to hear it. “If it’s not true, you fail chemistry for the semester,” he said. I cried out: “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”
Because I was alone with him, I really wanted someone to come in and tell him it was true (yet hoping somehow that what I had heard was not so). They did come, and they did tell him, and when he came over to me, his sad look of embarrassment was, by far, the most poignant apology he could offer me.
Somehow I controlled my emotions for the hour exam. Later in the dormitory, a friend from Marblehead, Massachusetts, red with tears, was whining incomprehensibly. He was drinking along with the others. I joined them. We tolerated the intolerable by drinking. As I channeled all my energy into deep prayer to save a dying leader, I was amazed at how insignificant my own problems suddenly had become.
That night I sought solitude. To be alone was the only way I could grasp the meaning of what had occurred. I walked into one of the study rooms in the dormitory. Nobody was there. There were papers with bold print strewn all over the floor. A campus guard walked slowly toward me. He walked as if he were sinking in quicksand with little strength or desire to keep his head above the quagmire. When he reached me, the sorrow in his face reflected his words: “It’s a damn shame, a real damn shame.” He pointed to the headlines and started to sob. We looked at each other. Our grief was so intense that we forgot who we were: He was no longer a campus guard and I a student. The events of the day had bound us together.
Before my time, there was World War I, the Depression, Pearl Harbor and Hitler. But for me the day that John F. Kennedy was shot is etched indelibly in time: That day was a precursor of the madness that the ‘60s would bring. The security and serenity of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were suddenly shattered by this tragic event.
Each year at Thanksgiving I cannot taste the turkey and dressing without also reliving the impressions of that fateful day: a few chemical equations, that strange hand pounding on my shoulder, my instructor’s look of disbelief and, one campus guard, a solitary figure with tear–stained face. It is still vivid in my mind, and I suppose it always will be.