The fog of November, a half-century later [Column]

We were changing classes, walking outside from the "old" to "new" buildings of my high school in Wallingford, Pa., a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia.

It was November. It was chilly and overcast. It was Friday afternoon, maybe 10 minutes to 2, or so, moving on to the last class of the day and the school week.

Somebody coming in the opposite direction said, to no one in particular: "Kennedy was Dallas...shot from an overpass."

What? No way. Must be some kind of joke. Those of us walking along looked at each other. Disbelief.

Biology class. Those already in the room were talking quietly. Maybe someone was crying. It was true.

Our teacher sat at his desk. No lecture, he said, no lab work. Just sit still; be quiet for 45 minutes.

I've written before that if you were 15 years old like I was on Nov. 22, 1963, you remember where you were and when you heard it and the memory will not leave you as long as you breathe.

The Kennedy assassination was the defining event of my generation, those of us born in the years during and immediately following World War II. Our parents had Dec. 7, 1941, and those of you born after 1963 have Sept. 11, 2001. You never forget those days if you lived through them.

Fifty years later, I still wonder how they knew at our school. There was no Internet, of course, no cell phones. There were maybe three phones in the whole school - in the main offices - and a pay phone. No TVs. No radios, only at World Series time.

It was that time between football and basketball seasons. We had practice for the latter that day, but the fog of November had already set in.

My mother picked me up around 6 and we went to the nearby train station to get my father on his way home from work.

"This is just horrible," was his greeting. He had a late - probably special edition - of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. "President Shot Dead" and under the headline was a large formal picture of the President, with stories about the assassination running down either side.

The motions of life slowly resumed. Sorry to say, I'm one of the guilty parties who went to an NFL game that Sunday, after the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, said the games should go on for reasons I guess I conveniently don't remember.

As we already had our tickets for the Redskins vs. the Eagles at Franklin Field, a friend and I took the train into Philadelphia. There was a bank of TV sets for some kind of appliance store in the concourse of the 30th Street Station, which was crowded with people headed to the game. On one of the TV screens, Lee Harvey Oswald walked between two lawmen in Dallas. A shot. Oswald was surrounded by police, reporters, who knows what.

We watched blankly then started on our walk to the stadium a few blocks away. Inside, there was an obligatory standing moment of silence for the late President and the playing of the national anthem and, as we sat down, somebody behind us, with a radio on their ear, shouted: "Oswald is dead." A cheer began to echo through the old brick stadium.

It was a game played by two teams going nowhere when they came in and who proceeded to play like it. The only thing memorable on the field was a fourth quarter fight involving some of the players.

Monday was the President's funeral. No school. The two girls next door and I sat in front of a black and white TV in their rec room, watching things we'd never seen: the black coffin on catafalque in the Rotunda, the caisson behind a team of horses moving down Pennsylvania Avenue, the mournful beat of the drums, the riderless horse with the boots backward in the stirrups.

When the Navy Hymn was played the girls, whose father had served in the Navy in World War II, began to cry.

We may not have had school at all that week. I don't remember. On Wednesday afternoon, my mother and I drove south to Washington, D.C., where her parents lived, for Thanksgiving.

It was our first trip using the new Delaware Turnpike and Maryland Northeastern Expressway, which had been open less than a week. I remembered hearing on the radio how President Kennedy had personally dedicated the new highway. Somewhere along the side of the highway on which were riding, the President, alive, had recently stood.

Saturday morning, somebody drove me to the District side of the Memorial Bridge. It was warm, sunny. Across the Potomac, halfway up the hill toward Custis-Lee Mansion that overlooks Arlington National Cemetery, I could see many people had already gathered. I walked across the bridge and into the cemetery and up the hill.

There was a line, moving slowly, quietly, people of all ages. The grave was surrounded by a simple, white picket fence and, inside the fence, were flowers piled upon flowers. Military hats were on the pile. Funeral wreaths stood on stands along side of the fence.

The line parted on either side of the grave. I had a Kodak camera and when I got alongside, I took a black and white photo. Unfortunately, I don't know what happened to it.

The days that followed were still a blur. We had been given two tickets to the Army-Navy Game by a family friend whose father was an Army general. The game wasn't going be played, but then the late President's wife said it should be, and so, on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, my neighbor and I rode trains to the old Municipal Stadium - soon to be renamed JFK Memorial Stadium - in South Philadelphia to join 100,000 for the best football game I have ever seen in person.

We sat on the Army side but rooted for Navy, because my dad had been a Marine, and that's what we did. Two obnoxious teenagers were sitting in the midst of a bunch of generals and their wives, and one of the three-stars wasn't too happy about it.

It was Navy's Roger Staubach versus Army's Rollie Stichweh, Navy's "Drive for Five" straight wins and the relentless final Army possession that died on Navy two-yard line as the time ran out. Navy 21, Army 15. Most of the players on the field - and those in the stands from both schools - would eventually deploy to Vietnam.

The fog of November was already turning into the fog of war - and a few other bad things to come.

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