Dark Days Of November
This Print Available For Sale At:
It was a bright and sunny in Topeka, Kansas that November day of 1963. I was in first grade at Clay Elementary and I had ran the three blocks to school that morning wearing nothing more heavy or confining than my Kansas City Chiefs sweat shirt. The Chiefs were playing their first season in KC and I was a fan.
We had spent the morning in class reading from our primers; See Dick, See Jane, See Spot. Run Spot Run. At 11:30 am we had been shuffled into the combination gymnasium and auditorium. The folding tables had been set out and I sat at my assigned spot quickly eating my lunch from my Jetson’s lunch box, the sooner I got down lunch the quicker I could go out to the playground. I played tether ball with my friends until our teacher, Miss Pyle called us in with a blow of her whistle.
Miss Pyle was a stereotypical old maid school teacher. She was pushing retirement age, had never married and had devoted her entire life to the education of children. Tall and lean her austere demeanor was offset by her flower print long linen dresses, cat eye glasses and white hair pulled back into a tight bun.
After lunch Miss Pyle instructed us take out our math work books. I lifted the lid of my desk at the back of the classroom reaching into the cavernous metal well below the lid. I extracted my math workbook. The book looked old and tattered; missing a multitude of pages that had been ciphered, judged, graded, corrected and discarded. I closed the lid to my desk and sat my large pencil in the empty ink well pocket at the upper right corner of the desk. The ink well pocket was a remnant of a time past yet at seven years of age I was completely ignorant of what it’s prior use was. To me it was just a convenient place to put things.
I liked my place at the back of the room, by the chalkboard. Early in the school year Miss Pyle noticed that I was running out of paper in my Big Chief tablet long before other children in the class; she soon discovered why. I was finishing my classroom assignments quicker than the other children and would doodle in my Big Chief tablet to pass the time. Miss Pyle had sat me at the back of the classroom by the chalkboards that adorned the swivel doors of the coat closet. Her instructions had been simple; “When you finish your work doodle on the blackboard and do not disturb the other children.” So that is what I did… Doodle.
It was shortly after 12:30 pm and I was doodling on the chalkboard having already finished figuring out that 2 + 2 = 4 when our Principal Mr. Sheldon entered the room. Leonard Sheldon was tall and lean and in many ways was the male counterpart of Miss Pyle. Mr. Sheldon would one day be my Junior High School Principal at two different schools but today he was just my Grade School Principal and something was wrong.
Mr. Sheldon was usually a very stern individual, more of an administrator than a educator he looked at all things with a very analytical practicality. Seldom would any hint of emotion cross his face. To see a slight smile play at the corner of his mouth was a rare and unusual event yet now he stood in the doorway of our classroom with tears in his eyes. “Miss Pyle may I speak with you in the hall for a moment?” He choked out. Every child in the classroom looked at Miss Pyle as she crossed the classroom and exited out the door. Mr. Sheldon softly closed the door and we were left to our own devices.
Some of my classmates seized the opportunity to start cutting up and throwing waded up paper balls at each other, while others ran from desk to desk laughing and playing around as for myself I was feeling anxious and I kept looking at the door. I wondered why Mr. Sheldon was crying and what it had to do with Miss Pyle.
Miss Pyle stepped back into the room and my classmates settled down, then the room got eerily silent as each and every child saw that their teacher had tears flowing down her cheeks. Miss Pyle’s usually pale and sallow face seemed somehow more pale and sallow than I had ever seen it. The click, click, click of her sensible shoes echoed within the high walls of the classroom as she made her way to her desk.
Stepping behind her desk Miss Pyle reached into her desk drawer and removed a tissue from the box she kept there. Dabbing at her eyes with the tissue Miss Pyle sniffled, cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. She looked out over the classroom of fresh young faces and in a soft voice said, “Children, class is dismissed. You are to go straight home, do not go anywhere else, do not go to your friends house, go home. Do you understand children?” Every young voice in the classroom sung out in harmony, “Yes Miss Pyle.”
As I put up my work book and pencils I looked up at the green cardboard changeable calendar on the wall. It was the type of calendar where one of the children was given the privilege of changing the numbers and day of the week each day. The calendar let all who looked at it know that today was Friday November 22, 1963.
I walked to the door and turned back to look at my desk to make sure that I had put everything up. Miss Pyle did not like items left on our desks and I did not want to write 100 times; “I will not leave things on my desk.” Miss Pyle came to the door and said in a small voice, “Run home Jimmy, run home.” She threw the switch by the door turning off the large overhead globe lights and walked back to her desk. The large windows on the east side of the room allowed the subdued light of the fall day to flood the classroom. I watched as Miss Pyle sunk down into her chair and buried her head in her hands; sobs racked her body. I left the room and did as instructed, I ran home.
When I ran into my home at 7th and Western Streets I discovered my mother and grandmother sitting in front of our tan GE Box Television. They should have been at work this time of day at Pelliters Department Store yet here they sat crying as they watched the black and white images on the screen. My mother held out her arms to me and I ran into them to be held in close. I did not know what was wrong but an immense sense of sorrow hung heavy in the air that day.
As my mother held me close and my grandmother stroked my hair CBS News Anchorman Walter Cronkite appeared on the TV screen, he too was crying. Looking up at a clock that was unseen to the eye of the camera he said, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” Mr. Cronkite paused fighting back his tears. “Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded; presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th President of the United States…”
As I sit here typing this narrative I look back on those dark days in November of 1963. I remember clearly all the images that flashed upon the television screen. The Zapruder film shown over and over again. The never ending analysis of the shooting. The suppositions of why and how it happened. Rewind and rewind of slow motion Jack Ruby gunning down a slow motion Lee Harvey Oswald and of course the Presidential Funeral.
It has been said that upon the day of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, that we as a Nation lost our innocence. The nation may have well lost it’s innocence but I gained a sense of my own mortality. The loss of a beloved President taught me the meaning of life and death.
Would JFK have gone down in history as one of our greatest or worst Presidents if he had not been assassinated? We will never know. Would he be as loved and honored as he is without a bullet ending his life? Again, we will never know. Was there more than one gunman? It does not matter. What matters is that a man died and for what reason? We will never know.
It is now 50 years since the day that I ran home from school to learn that life is fragile. I have been away from my home for a long, long time yet somehow it seems appropriate that I have returned to Topeka at this time, on the 50th anniversary of the death of a President and the birth of my awareness. And on this 50th anniversary of the senseless assassination of our nations youngest President I have become aware of one other thing; my generation is the last one that will have the actual memory of those tragic days.
Most of us look at history from the position of an observer, not as a participant. When we think about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln we look at it from a text book point of view. All we know we learned in school, we have no first hand knowledge because no one is alive that lived within that time. But those such as I that were 7 years of age, or 6 or 5 at the time of the Kennedy assassination carry with us vivid memories of that day. One day the last member of my generation will pass away and there will be no one living that had an actual memory of November 22, 1963. Upon that day future generations will only know what they read in text books and are taught in school about the death of a President. JFK will seem no more real to those students of history than Lincoln did to us.
So while I live and breathe I will share with those that care what I witnessed first hand least the awareness of how this President, no, this mans death affected each and everyone of us on a personal level, regardless of age, sex, creed, color, religion or origin. I will remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy and mourn his loss yet more so I will mourn what we all loss on that bright and sunny day in Dallas, Texas; our sense of tranquility and the dream of Camelot. A Dark Day indeed.
“Art must evoke an emotion in order to be art. If it only creates indifference then it is not art, it is garbage!”
Tags: 1963, art, Assassin, Dallas, funeral, J.A. George, Jack Ruby, Jackie Kennedy, JFK, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Kansas, Lee Harvey Oswald, murder, painting, President, school, Texas, The GYPSY, Topeka, water color, watercolor