A few months after Kennedy’s visit to Fliegerhorst Kaserne and his famous speech in Berlin, in November 1963, Greg and his sister were at the Saturday matinee showing at the Fliegerhorst base movie theatre. It was there, in the dark, where they first heard of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Although Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, because of the time difference and, perhaps, some delay in announcing the death of the President, we didn’t find out about it until Saturday morning. We were in the movie theatre, mid-morning, watching some now-forgotten feature when the film fluttered to a halt and the lights came up. A disembodied voice on the house speakers told us to get up and go home. “The President of the United States is dead.” We left, walked home to ask our parents what this all meant. And what it all would mean.
Greg remembers a pervasive silence on the base. And flags, lots and lots of flags, at half-mast. “Taps” would play each evening at about 5:00 PM on the base, and that evening the sound of the bugle seemed especially desolate and freighted with meaning.
While Greg was in Germany, Joan was living in Pittsburgh, on the other side of the Atlantic. On that unforgettable Friday afternoon she was at school waiting for the start of band class. Joan played clarinet in the junior high band, and her friend Arlene, also a clarinet player, rushed into the classroom to tell her that the President had been shot. In disbelief Joan’s first reaction was to laugh. When she realized that Arlene wasn’t joking, Joan tried to apologize. For years after she would be upset with herself any time she recalled that moment. The mere idea that someone would shoot, could shoot, the President seemed laughable to her. If only it had been a joke, instead of harsh reality.
The news spread quickly through the classroom. Not knowing what else to do, the students in Joan’s class took their seats, as they did at the beginning of every band class period. Then an announcement came in over the loud speaker, dashing any hope that the assassination was somehow a cruel hoax.
Classes were immediately cancelled and arrangements made to send everyone home. Riding home on the school bus, Joan sat alone and stared out of the window, feeling afraid and uncertain. Having just turned thirteen, she didn’t have enough experience of life, or with death, to put any of what had just happened in perspective. If the President could be killed, how safe was our country? How safe were we? What might happen next? She remembers hearing some of the kids in the back of the bus sobbing. Shocked, her own tears wouldn’t come. Only later, after looking at the images of the Zapruder home movie in her family’s LIFE magazine, would she fully realize the brutality of what had happened.
The days following were spent watching seemingly endless television broadcasts. On Sunday, returning home just after Sunday school, Joan turned on the television literally seconds after Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. Her dad was in the room and realized what had taken place before she did. She will never forget the shock and disbelief in his voice, “They shot Oswald! They shot Oswald!”
Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting contributed to the sense of horror and uncertainty that we felt during the days following the assassination. Greg and Joan didn’t know it then, but JFK’s assassination was only the beginning of a string of assassinations to follow during those turbulent years: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy.
The decade of the Sixties was certainly a time of new beginnings, new music, new values, and an awakening of a new youth culture. But like all times of change and upheaval, it was also a time of endings, of bright promises cut short by senseless violence.