The Salem News
---- — It was 50 years ago — 1963 — when three significant, yet seemingly unrelated, events lined up as an undeniably life-changing moment in my life: the gift of a first Kodak Instamatic color camera for my 13th birthday, my favorite cousin’s wedding in South Carolina and the assassination of JFK. Perhaps it was destiny that I became a young eyewitness — and a novice photographer — at the funeral of our country’s young and vibrant president.
It was a lovely Friday afternoon in late autumn. I was boarding the school bus with excitement, knowing that next week my family would be traveling to Charleston for Thanksgiving and cousin Marie’s wedding.
“The president has been shot!” echoed multiple voices. What? The president has been shot? That can’t be. Who would want to shoot our president?
He was the epitome of charisma, young and handsome with a beautiful wife and two adorable children. They were Camelot, our royal family. His picture hung in our home and in the Life magazines that we collected. I knew all the words to the novelty record by Little Jo-Ann, “My Daddy is President, what does your Daddy do?” Most importantly, he and his family, like my own, were from Massachusetts and Catholic!
But it was true; the president had been shot and was dead. I understood what DEAD meant but really comprehended neither what had happened nor what it meant. At my house, we all stared at the black-and-white TV; Dad came home, neighbors came by, the phone rang. Tears flowed, and the adults had no answers.
I am not certain if the images I recall now were truly from that moment or are just part of our collective memories that have been replaying for nearly 50 years: the presidential motorcade, the blank expression of a blood-stained first lady and the sounds of grief from an entire nation.
By the next morning, Saturday, our plans had changed. We wanted to leave early for South Carolina, stopping in Virginia to stay with another cousin and go to our president’s funeral. When Mom phoned to let the school know, one of the teachers replied that the opportunity to experience a historic event of this great significance should not be missed.
We left very early on Sunday. We listened to the news in the car and, once at my cousin’s, watched TV. My brother and I wanted to go to the Rotunda, but because the lines were so long and the wait was hours, we watched television as endless mourners passed by the flag-draped casket. I cried when a black-veiled first lady with her two young children in tow came into view — a picture of grace and dignity, bravely leading a nation deep in sorrow and despair. “How can she maintain such composure?” I remember thinking.
Monday, we found a viewing spot near the Lincoln Memorial. The crowds were massive, yet orderly. I could only see what was immediately in front of me as military and police closely protected the procession route. I took two photos of marching cadets and soldiers playing solemn, slow beats.
I heard the hoofs of the team of white horses pulling the caisson that carried the red, white and blue flag-draped casket. I clicked the shutter, capturing a Kodak moment still deeply stamped in my mind and soul.
We moved to the Memorial Bridge for another view of the procession en route to Arlington Cemetery. I snapped a photo of the first lady’s limousine, windows darkened but providing little privacy for a woman grieving not only for her husband and children’s’ father, but for an entire nation. Later, we followed others to the gravesite, listening and watching as limousines with foreign dignitaries lined up and stopped briefly to pay the respects of so many countries. There I took my last photo, of a flower-covered grave on the slope of the Lee Mansion. Guarded by a military brigade, the temporary eternal flame was visible, marking the final resting place of our country’s commander-in-chief.
We drove on to Charleston, celebrated Thanksgiving with Mom’s family and somehow managed to dance at my cousin’s wedding. We drove home to Massachusetts and went back to school and life. I grew up, married and had children and grandchildren. In the intervening 50 years, I’ve yet to meet anyone outside my family who has shared this experience.
I was in the right place at the right time; a young girl with her brand-new Kodak camera. The colors in the photos have faded, and the images seem less clear, but when I look at them, I still feel the emotions of a young teen witnessing a tragic and historic event.
Over the years, I have returned to Arlington a number of times, as though he were a family member.
In some ways, he was. I am grateful for that.
Barbara Poremba EdD, MPH, RNCS is a professor in Salem State University’s School of Nursing, where her professional interests include public and international health.