The day JFK died — a godawful anniversary

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People who are younger than baby boomers (and these days, that’s a lot of folks) must get tired of hearing about John Kennedy’s murder every Nov. 22. I can understand it, since I remember getting tired of hearing about Pearl Harbor every Dec. 7 when I was growing up. “If you’d been around then, you’d understand,” my dad once said when I mentioned that the Dec. 7 refrain was getting old. I’m sure he was right, because it’s the same thing now with JFK’s death. If you were around then, it’s amazing how many details come to mind when the subject is broached; and every time, it’s more than “a memory” — after more than four decades, it somehow still feels like a kick to the gut. That must have been what the memory of Pearl Harbor was like for boomers’ parents’ generation; and I imagine that’s what memories of 9/11 will be for our kids.

Anyhow, Nov. 22 can’t go by without at least reaffirming what an earth-shaking, nation-changing, godawful damned day this date was in 1963. I have written hundreds of stories, features and columns for this publication and others, but the one that is most often brought up by readers is “JFK, Dallas & High School Football,” which CL published in 1997. It is included in two anthologies: No Hiding Place, published by Novello Festival Press, and Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of pieces by yours truly, available, the last time I looked, at Paper Skyscraper and Park Road Books. But if you want to read it without buying a book, just scroll down.

Published on the 35th anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder, this piece is a portrait of a teenager and a small town on the brink of major change.

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JFK, Dallas & High School Football

My high school's football team played for the state championship on the day John Kennedy was killed. That night, actually. There was nothing anyone could do; I don't think there was even any official discussion about whether the game should be postponed. The showdown had been scheduled for a long time and when would it be played if not on November 22? In any case, there was no way I wasn't going. There was too much riding on it.

I was a freshman at Gaffney High School in South Carolina, and my answer to the standard boomer question of where I was when I heard Kennedy had been shot is that I was waiting at the water fountain before going into sixth period Latin class. I was third in line behind Dianne Childers, a strawberry blonde future head cheerleader and homecoming queen -- and the object of many a freshman boy's crushes, including mine.

"Just shot, that's all I heard," said the girl who ran up to our line to tell us about it. "Just shot." I imagined at the time that the President had been hit in the arm or shoulder and that he'd be all right. I gulped the cold water from the fountain and walked into Latin class, a couple of steps behind Dianne.

Gaffney High School would play its last football game of the season that night 60 miles to the east, against Lancaster High, in Lancaster, SC. Both teams were undefeated going into this last game and, as there were no playoffs then in South Carolina, the winner would be declared state champion.

Small Carolina towns like Gaffney had grown throughout the 1950s and into the Space Race decade, but the undertow of the past still tugged at us mercilessly -- in the sluggish pace of everyday life; a resistance to change so deep it was practically a primal instinct; the narrow field of interests; in all the slow, stifling ways that drove high school students away after graduation. In short, towns like Gaffney had precious little to get excited about, and very often the high school football team became the focus of the town's energy, both incubator and repository of its dreams.

We were lucky. The Gaffney High School Indians had won so many state championships over the years, triumph had nearly become routine. A truly great football team, which we had that year and knew it, was enough to whip everyone into a frenzy. But consider a season-ending, state title game against an equally undefeated rival -- godalmighty, that was almost more than we could stand.

No one had talked about anything else for a couple of weeks. Folks on the street, fellow students, even teachers, neighbors and checkout girls at the A&P, friends on the phone, deejays on the radio, columnists in the town newspaper, everybody everywhere. The air was heavy with weeks' worth of boasting and insults hurled between the two towns.

School boosters had the idea, unprecedented at the time, of chartering buses for the drive to Lancaster, and were overwhelmed by the demand. So they enlisted even more buses, also quickly filled. The championship game had become a juggernaut, by far the biggest event of the year. We were wrapped up, secure in our own drama, our self-contained world, basking -- perhaps for the last time -- in small Southern towns' traditional disconnection from the big national picture.

During football season, Friday's last class was cut short so the students could hold pep rallies in Gaffney High's wobbly old auditorium. Our rallies were so wild and raucous -- just a notch below a riot, really -- newspapers from neighboring towns would actually send reporters to cover them. For a solid half-hour or more, we let loose with clamorous, howling cheers, fired by teenage dreams of greatness -- singing, screaming, jumping up and down and flailing around and roaring in a ferocious way that could only happen in a town where speaking in tongues at revivals was not uncommon. The rallies always left us hoarse and rasping as we slammed out of the auditorium, facing yet another five hours before the actual game.

On November 22, though, most of us were uneasy as we filed into the auditorium around 2:15, wondering what had happened to President Kennedy. The principal, a universally disliked man who did his best to earn our loathing, waited until we all sat down.

I felt a small tugging in my chest as I spied Dianne Childers, on the freshman cheerleading squad, standing onstage, hands on hips, next to the older cheerleaders, awaiting the word from the principal. She was biting her lower lip and her gaze darted randomly around the auditorium, nervous or worried, while the other cheerleaders focused intently on the pep band, seated in the front rows.

The principal walked up the side stairs and across the stage to a microphone. He motioned for silence, and when we had all finally calmed down enough for him to be heard, he told us what he had learned on the radio: President Kennedy had been critically wounded, "but he's OK."

The rally went on as scheduled, one of the wildest and loudest ever, a wall of championship fever denying entry to the dark outside world.

When we left the rally, we heard right away that Kennedy was dead.

My father had bought tickets for us on one of the chartered buses to Lancaster to attend the game. We didn't see each other much, as the weekly visits mandated by the divorce settlement had petered out a couple of years earlier. My mother had remarried, to a man of good will and patience who tolerated my transparent reminders that he wasn't my real father as he waited for a time when he'd fit in.

Late that afternoon, Mom dropped me off in front of Dad's house. On the way she asked me if I was sure I wanted to go ahead with the trip, in light of the day's tragedy. I looked at her as if she had lost her mind.

For me, excitement about the game was entangled with expectations of sharing it with my father. We had taken in more things together in the past couple of months – a movie, a football game, a county fair and such -- and seemed to be building to some kind of rediscovery. The championship game could open that door. If we joined in the intensity of the contest that was consuming the town, and breathed the same air as the thousands of others who were just as crazed, then we could catch up on what we'd missed during the past few years.

Instead, that was the most awkward evening I ever spent; and awkward in an indescribable way, as nothing like it has happened since to compare to it.

At Dad's house, he and I talked numbly about the assassination before we left, both of us either looking at the floor or at a spot a few inches to the side of the other's face, exchanging whatever information we had gleaned from radio or TV news reports. Then we got into his car and listened to more radio news from Dallas as we drove to Gaffney High stadium, where a fleet of buses waited to take the tribe of fans to the big showdown.

But obviously, everything was different, and in a way we could neither quite grasp nor fend off. The murder was more monstrous than anything I had known, unnatural and overpowering, like a force of nature that had suddenly turned evil. Its appalling pull drew us into its awful maw, and we had no choice but to talk about it, react to it anyway we could, just to see if our ramblings would accidentally make some sense of it. It didn't work. Dad parked the car and we climbed onboard our bus for the trip to Lancaster.

Feelings on the crowded coach during the long ride through the dark were tangled and confusing. Rather than the all-American communal football fever we had had every reason to expect, our high spirits – genuine but sputtering, in fits and starts - fought against uneasy silences, and our conversations avoided Dallas, shoving back the obvious for just a while longer.

Cheers often erupted, like fireworks exploding over a fog, but just beneath the surface of our rolling pep rally roiled a strong, unspoken guilt for going ahead with the game in spite of Kennedy's death. And the guilt fit tightly into our resentment that something the world considered more important -- the outside, mostly Northeastern world that defined American reality and in which we were only partly included -- was draining the meaning from our dramatic local clash. We hated it, even as our bus kept rolling eastward toward the season's close, and bravado and boasting filled the coach with the hubbub of teenagers on the move.

Now and then during that bus ride, we lost ourselves in the upcoming showdown and yelled out old favorite cheers like "Two bits, four bits" or just "Indians Indians Indians Indians," over and over like a chant to ward off the real world. But then things would quiet down, and tongue-tied clumsiness would rule the bus again.

As we finally rolled into Lancaster, our football fire rekindled, and when the small stadium came into view, a scream went up from the Gaffney buses that startled nearby Lancaster townspeople walking to the game, bundled up against the cold.

The drivers parked the buses and we scrambled off, making our way quickly to the visitors' side of the stadium, filling it easily. We settled in and waited for the game to start.

Ah, the game. The Game. That great contest for the state title, this battle of undefeated young gods, the anticipation of which had nearly been the center of our lives for a while, turned out to be utterly anticlimactic. Flat. There would be no release for us.

The deflation began when it became obvious that the good citizens of Lancaster were less inclined than we to swallow their shock at the President's death. The hometown cheers were lackluster, and a preacher delivered a long-winded pre-game prayer of "sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy and her little children" and asked God to "give strength to President Johnson." I remember wincing at the strange new words "President Johnson."

Beyond that, the driving force of Lancaster High's success had disappeared. Their star running back, a 20-year-old named Jimmy "Muletrain" McGuirt, had turned 21 earlier that week, rendering him ineligible for this last momentous game. Gaffney's team, intact and ready to play, romped, 27-0. After the first two touchdowns, the night became a bore, allowing time for teenaged minds to wander back to what had happened in Dallas.

Friends congregated near the concession stand at halftime. Who was the guy they'd arrested for killing the President? No one anybody'd heard of. Is Kennedy's body still in Texas? No, they flew it back to Washington. How do you know? Somebody had a transistor radio on our bus. When'll they bury him? Everyone had heard something but nobody really knew anything, and the talk spun aimlessly.

I wandered down to the bottom of the stands and managed to get Dianne Childers to walk over and talk to me across the barrier between the spectators and the field where she and the rest of the cheerleaders stood.

"Hey, Dianne, looks like we've got 'em beat."

"Yeah, isn’t it great? We’re gonna stomp 'em in the second half, too."

She jumped and did a split in mid-air, as if performing a cheer. Her hair bounced up, down, and then away from her face. She wasn't in the least embarrassed about doing this; I was enthralled, hormones ablaze.

"Yeah. It's great. Say, um, you think you'd..."

"It does seem kinda weird, though, you know, with Kennedy and everything. I dunno." She looked to the side, toward the ground.

"Oh... Well, yeah, it does. . ."

She soon realized I had had no compelling reason for hailing her away from her cheering duties. She looked over at the other cheerleaders, looked back and shrugged her shoulders.

"I'd better get back."

Before I could answer, she turned and ran back to her friends. It hit me that that had been as close as I'd ever get to dating Dianne Childers. She was in the crowd, just out of my reach.

Things weren't the way I had thought they were.

For the rest of the game, I split my time between friends -- roaming the stands, buying Cokes, cracking stupid jokes -- and my Dad, who, although never a terribly expressive man, was more distant than usual. Not much passed between the two of us. He bought me a hotdog and a drink and asked me about one or two of my friends. We talked about the game, but there wasn't a lot to say except that Lancaster sure missed their big guy, and that our quarterback, Rodney Camp, sure could sling the ball, and that the whole thing was "a smear." When it was over, the crowd was subdued as we walked back to the buses and took our seats and headed home.

The ride back to Gaffney was by turns raucous and uncomfortably silent, as the late night of November 22 lurched unnaturally between reckless championship furor and the dazed anxiety the rest of the country was enduring. My father and I sat next to each other, but we might as well have been in different vehicles. We were unused to talking about anything more substantial than TV or movies or sports, and the disabling enormity of the day, and the letdown of the deflated game, silenced any hopes we had had of reconciliation.

About 20 miles from home, chatter and laughter was rumbling through the bus when a student, thinking he was funny, yelled out, "OK, let's all have a moment of silence for our beloved President." He laughed, then choked it back as all talking on the bus stopped, all of us suddenly aware of our revelry's crassness.

My father and I got back to his house after midnight and I went to sleep on that uncertain night in a bed that seemed foreign. In the morning, we rehashed the game over breakfast, trying to inject some retroactive excitement into it; we finally gave up. After awhile my eyes wandered to the newspaper lying on Dad's kitchen table, and I grabbed it and read aloud the latest details of the tragedy that had fragmented so many people's fragile plans.

After breakfast, I packed up my clothes from the previous day and Dad drove me home.

Much of this account is only clear in retrospect. It was only later that I realized what I'd really been after during that trip; just as it was only in retrospect that we could see the outlines of the downward slide the country embarked on after Kennedy's murder. That Saturday morning it all felt a lot simpler: I just knew that something awful had happened.

At the top of my driveway, I got out of Dad's car, talked through the open window, agreeing to maybe go to a movie in a couple of weeks, and walked down the hill and through the sliding glass doors and into my home, where my mother and stepfather were watching the televised aftermath of Kennedy's death. They seemed to look me up and down to see if I was all right. Then, after a brief exchange of information about Friday night's game, the three of us turned to the TV and slipped into the four-day shared national intimacy of grief.

Gaffney High School would play its last football game of the season that night 60 miles to the east, against Lancaster High, in Lancaster, SC. Both teams were undefeated going into this last game and, as there were no playoffs then in South Carolina, the winner would be declared state champion.

Small Carolina towns like Gaffney had grown throughout the 1950s and into the Space Race decade, but the undertow of the past still tugged at us mercilessly -- in the sluggish pace of everyday life; a resistance to change so deep it was practically a primal instinct; the narrow field of interests; in all the slow, stifling ways that drove high school students away after graduation. In short, towns like Gaffney had precious little to get excited about, and very often the high school football team became the focus of the town's energy, both incubator and repository of its dreams.

We were lucky. The Gaffney High School Indians had won so many state championships over the years, triumph had nearly become routine. A truly great football team, which we had that year and knew it, was enough to whip everyone into a frenzy. But consider a season-ending, state title game against an equally undefeated rival -- godalmighty, that was almost more than we could stand.

No one had talked about anything else for a couple of weeks. Folks on the street, fellow students, even teachers, neighbors and checkout girls at the A&P, friends on the phone, deejays on the radio, columnists in the town newspaper, everybody everywhere. The air was heavy with weeks' worth of boasting and insults hurled between the two towns.

School boosters had the idea, unprecedented at the time, of chartering buses for the drive to Lancaster, and were overwhelmed by the demand. So they enlisted even more buses, also quickly filled. The championship game had become a juggernaut, by far the biggest event of the year. We were wrapped up, secure in our own drama, our self-contained world, basking -- perhaps for the last time -- in small Southern towns' traditional disconnection from the big national picture.

During football season, Friday's last class was cut short so the students could hold pep rallies in Gaffney High's wobbly old auditorium. Our rallies were so wild and raucous -- just a notch below a riot, really -- newspapers from neighboring towns would actually send reporters to cover them. For a solid half-hour or more, we let loose with clamorous, howling cheers, fired by teenage dreams of greatness -- singing, screaming, jumping up and down and flailing around and roaring in a ferocious way that could only happen in a town where speaking in tongues at revivals was not uncommon. The rallies always left us hoarse and rasping as we slammed out of the auditorium, facing yet another five hours before the actual game.

On November 22, though, most of us were uneasy as we filed into the auditorium around 2:15, wondering what had happened to President Kennedy. The principal, a universally disliked man who did his best to earn our loathing, waited until we all sat down.

I felt a small tugging in my chest as I spied Dianne Childers, on the freshman cheerleading squad, standing onstage, hands on hips, next to the older cheerleaders, awaiting the word from the principal. She was biting her lower lip and her gaze darted randomly around the auditorium, nervous or worried, while the other cheerleaders focused intently on the pep band, seated in the front rows.

The principal walked up the side stairs and across the stage to a microphone. He motioned for silence, and when we had all finally calmed down enough for him to be heard, he told us what he had learned on the radio: President Kennedy had been critically wounded, "but he's OK."

The rally went on as scheduled, one of the wildest and loudest ever, a wall of championship fever denying entry to the dark outside world.

When we left the rally, we heard right away that Kennedy was dead.

My father had bought tickets for us on one of the chartered buses to Lancaster to attend the game. We didn't see each other much, as the weekly visits mandated by the divorce settlement had petered out a couple of years earlier. My mother had remarried, to a man of good will and patience who tolerated my transparent reminders that he wasn't my real father as he waited for a time when he'd fit in.

Late that afternoon, Mom dropped me off in front of Dad's house. On the way she asked me if I was sure I wanted to go ahead with the trip, in light of the day's tragedy. I looked at her as if she had lost her mind.

For me, excitement about the game was entangled with expectations of sharing it with my father. We had taken in more things together in the past couple of months – a movie, a football game, a county fair and such -- and seemed to be building to some kind of rediscovery. The championship game could open that door. If we joined in the intensity of the contest that was consuming the town, and breathed the same air as the thousands of others who were just as crazed, then we could catch up on what we'd missed during the past few years.

Instead, that was the most awkward evening I ever spent; and awkward in an indescribable way, as nothing like it has happened since to compare to it.

At Dad's house, he and I talked numbly about the assassination before we left, both of us either looking at the floor or at a spot a few inches to the side of the other's face, exchanging whatever information we had gleaned from radio or TV news reports. Then we got into his car and listened to more radio news from Dallas as we drove to Gaffney High stadium, where a fleet of buses waited to take the tribe of fans to the big showdown.

But obviously, everything was different, and in a way we could neither quite grasp nor fend off. The murder was more monstrous than anything I had known, unnatural and overpowering, like a force of nature that had suddenly turned evil. Its appalling pull drew us into its awful maw, and we had no choice but to talk about it, react to it anyway we could, just to see if our ramblings would accidentally make some sense of it. It didn't work. Dad parked the car and we climbed onboard our bus for the trip to Lancaster.

Feelings on the crowded coach during the long ride through the dark were tangled and confusing. Rather than the all-American communal football fever we had had every reason to expect, our high spirits – genuine but sputtering, in fits and starts - fought against uneasy silences, and our conversations avoided Dallas, shoving back the obvious for just a while longer.

Cheers often erupted, like fireworks exploding over a fog, but just beneath the surface of our rolling pep rally roiled a strong, unspoken guilt for going ahead with the game in spite of Kennedy's death. And the guilt fit tightly into our resentment that something the world considered more important -- the outside, mostly Northeastern world that defined American reality and in which we were only partly included -- was draining the meaning from our dramatic local clash. We hated it, even as our bus kept rolling eastward toward the season's close, and bravado and boasting filled the coach with the hubbub of teenagers on the move.

Now and then during that bus ride, we lost ourselves in the upcoming showdown and yelled out old favorite cheers like "Two bits, four bits" or just "Indians Indians Indians Indians," over and over like a chant to ward off the real world. But then things would quiet down, and tongue-tied clumsiness would rule the bus again.

As we finally rolled into Lancaster, our football fire rekindled, and when the small stadium came into view, a scream went up from the Gaffney buses that startled nearby Lancaster townspeople walking to the game, bundled up against the cold.

The drivers parked the buses and we scrambled off, making our way quickly to the visitors' side of the stadium, filling it easily. We settled in and waited for the game to start.

Ah, the game. The Game. That great contest for the state title, this battle of undefeated young gods, the anticipation of which had nearly been the center of our lives for a while, turned out to be utterly anticlimactic. Flat. There would be no release for us.

The deflation began when it became obvious that the good citizens of Lancaster were less inclined than we to swallow their shock at the President's death. The hometown cheers were lackluster, and a preacher delivered a long-winded pre-game prayer of "sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy and her little children" and asked God to "give strength to President Johnson." I remember wincing at the strange new words "President Johnson."

Beyond that, the driving force of Lancaster High's success had disappeared. Their star running back, a 20-year-old named Jimmy "Muletrain" McGuirt, had turned 21 earlier that week, rendering him ineligible for this last momentous game. Gaffney's team, intact and ready to play, romped, 27-0. After the first two touchdowns, the night became a bore, allowing time for teenaged minds to wander back to what had happened in Dallas.

Friends congregated near the concession stand at halftime. Who was the guy they'd arrested for killing the President? No one anybody'd heard of. Is Kennedy's body still in Texas? No, they flew it back to Washington. How do you know? Somebody had a transistor radio on our bus. When'll they bury him? Everyone had heard something but nobody really knew anything, and the talk spun aimlessly.

I wandered down to the bottom of the stands and managed to get Dianne Childers to walk over and talk to me across the barrier between the spectators and the field where she and the rest of the cheerleaders stood.

"Hey, Dianne, looks like we've got 'em beat."

"Yeah, isn’t it great? We’re gonna stomp 'em in the second half, too."

She jumped and did a split in mid-air, as if performing a cheer. Her hair bounced up, down, and then away from her face. She wasn't in the least embarrassed about doing this; I was enthralled, hormones ablaze.

"Yeah. It's great. Say, um, you think you'd..."

"It does seem kinda weird, though, you know, with Kennedy and everything. I dunno." She looked to the side, toward the ground.

"Oh... Well, yeah, it does. . ."

She soon realized I had had no compelling reason for hailing her away from her cheering duties. She looked over at the other cheerleaders, looked back and shrugged her shoulders.

"I'd better get back."

Before I could answer, she turned and ran back to her friends. It hit me that that had been as close as I'd ever get to dating Dianne Childers. She was in the crowd, just out of my reach.

Things weren't the way I had thought they were.

For the rest of the game, I split my time between friends -- roaming the stands, buying Cokes, cracking stupid jokes -- and my Dad, who, although never a terribly expressive man, was more distant than usual. Not much passed between the two of us. He bought me a hotdog and a drink and asked me about one or two of my friends. We talked about the game, but there wasn't a lot to say except that Lancaster sure missed their big guy, and that our quarterback, Rodney Camp, sure could sling the ball, and that the whole thing was "a smear." When it was over, the crowd was subdued as we walked back to the buses and took our seats and headed home.

The ride back to Gaffney was by turns raucous and uncomfortably silent, as the late night of November 22 lurched unnaturally between reckless championship furor and the dazed anxiety the rest of the country was enduring. My father and I sat next to each other, but we might as well have been in different vehicles. We were unused to talking about anything more substantial than TV or movies or sports, and the disabling enormity of the day, and the letdown of the deflated game, silenced any hopes we had had of reconciliation.

About 20 miles from home, chatter and laughter was rumbling through the bus when a student, thinking he was funny, yelled out, "OK, let's all have a moment of silence for our beloved President." He laughed, then choked it back as all talking on the bus stopped, all of us suddenly aware of our revelry's crassness.

My father and I got back to his house after midnight and I went to sleep on that uncertain night in a bed that seemed foreign. In the morning, we rehashed the game over breakfast, trying to inject some retroactive excitement into it; we finally gave up. After awhile my eyes wandered to the newspaper lying on Dad's kitchen table, and I grabbed it and read aloud the latest details of the tragedy that had fragmented so many people's fragile plans.

After breakfast, I packed up my clothes from the previous day and Dad drove me home.

Much of this account is only clear in retrospect. It was only later that I realized what I'd really been after during that trip; just as it was only in retrospect that we could see the outlines of the downward slide the country embarked on after Kennedy's murder. That Saturday morning it all felt a lot simpler: I just knew that something awful had happened.

At the top of my driveway, I got out of Dad's car, talked through the open window, agreeing to maybe go to a movie in a couple of weeks, and walked down the hill and through the sliding glass doors and into my home, where my mother and stepfather were watching the televised aftermath of Kennedy's death. They seemed to look me up and down to see if I was all right. Then, after a brief exchange of information about Friday night's game, the three of us turned to the TV and slipped into the four-day shared national intimacy of grief.

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