That’s the date on the black-bordered billboards that went up within days after It Happened. The date that would forever after be a day of solemn remembrance; a day to remember a horrible tragedy that happened to us all. No longer just the tenth birthday of some little girl in Peoria that nobody ever heard of.
That’s all it was when I woke up that morning. Pretty exciting; I was going into double figures, and that felt like a milestone. It was raining, but that was no big deal: I was used to nasty weather on my birthday. All part of living in the Midwest and having a birthday late in November. Because I was beginning to care about clothes, I had a birthday outfit that I got to open first thing in the morning and wear to school that day. It was a pink sweater with pearl buttons up the front, and a matching pink faux-fur collar, and a pleated wool skirt in a plaid of soft pastels, pink and sky blue and pale yellow. I loved pink, and I loved being ten, and I didn’t mind walking to school in the wind and rain under angry dark skies. My best friend Patty and I had our umbrellas, and our conversation as we walked, and the delicious knowledge that Thanksgiving was almost here and Christmas would follow soon after. Life was good.
In those days, my grade school didn’t serve lunches. The school closed at noon and reopened at 1:00, with the students going home for lunch. It was still stormy at lunchtime, and when we arrived back at school it seemed to be raining even harder. Patty and I were on the playground, huddled under our umbrellas, when a boy in our class ran past and called to us, “Have you heard? President Kennedy’s been shot!” Patty and I exchanged an outraged look, then retorted, “That’s not funny!” and “You shouldn’t joke about things like that!” We were always on the same wavelength that way. Then the bell rang and we went inside to our classes, and we found out he wasn’t trying to make a joke.
I don’t remember what happened at school that afternoon, except bits and pieces. I know the principal’s voice came over the speaker (an ancient thing, almost as ancient as our school, which was built in the 1880s). I seem to remember we learned of the shooting and then… later… that the President had died. At that point school was dismissed. I don’t remember the walk home at all, what Patty and I said, if we said anything. I remember feeling that something had come loose, life was out of control – kind of dizzy and disoriented. And of course, the rain.
Mom had heard the news. She didn’t watch daytime television, but she listened to the radio occasionally, and her friends had probably phoned her. (Everybody was phoning everybody else that afternoon. I learned years later that the phone system in Washington DC had been so overloaded with calls that for a time there was no dial tone.) Mom tried to calm my fears. I worried that we didn’t have a President now, and she explained to me about vice-presidential succession. The local newspaper put out an Extra – which I’d never seen before – and there on the front page was that photo of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office, with Lady Bird on one side of him, and Jacqueline Kennedy on the other.
My parents were Republicans. They’d voted for Nixon, and while they never said anything against Kennedy during his presidency, I knew they were kind of… neutral towards him. Not me, though; I was fascinated with the glamorous First Family. Jackie was so beautiful, and the President was handsome, and Caroline was almost my age. I knew they had another child too, a boy, not much more than a baby. Now these young children that I could identify with had lost their father in a really terrible way.
For the next three days, there was no regular programming. All three networks turned themselves into The Kennedy Channel. There was neither rhyme nor reason to what they showed. They interspersed live broadcasts of whatever was going on in Washington, DC with taped footage of everything from Kennedy running for president in 1960 right up to the speech he gave in Fort Worth a few hours before he died. I don’t remember much about that… but I do remember Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV on Sunday. I don’t honestly recall whether or not I saw it when it happened, because I’ve seen it so many times since then. The state funeral was on Monday, and I know I watched that. We had the day off from school. Then on Tuesday, we went back to school, and the networks started showing regular programming again, and life went back to normal – except that it didn’t. We’d turned a corner without realizing it, started down a path that would lead to more violence and unrest and rebellion than we would have believed possible when we woke up on the morning of November 22, 1963.
When those black-bordered billboards went up, all over the country, they just confirmed what I already believed: that my birthday would be a day of national mourning forever and ever. It was one more thing to be bummed out about. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Time went by, and I grew up, and more and more years passed between me and that day, and that devastated little girl. But no matter how many years it’s been, no matter what age the calendar says I am, on November 22nd I’m always ten years old. And it’s raining.