'It Seemed Like World Had Been Broken Forever'

November 22, 1963 was my last day with my second grade class at Valhalla Elementary School in Westchester County, New York. My  family had moved a few days before to a new town on the Hudson River. I had begged my parents to delay switching me to my new school, because I was so eager to go with my friends on the long-anticipated school field trip. It was bittersweet fall day, filled with the exuberance of being out in the world together, coupled with my private sadness that I was about to leave them all behind.

He was reading the tape aloud ... when suddenly he started shouting ... [and] the whole newsroom exploded into pandemonium.

Our first stop was the post office. The tour included an introduction to mail sorting, still done by hand, and an exhibit of an amazing machine which spun a white string in a huge loop around a box and tied a perfect knot in one second. Then we filed into the postmaster’s office, where he gave us a patriotic speech about the importance of postal service in a democracy. For years he stood in my mind as the image of a “U.S. Government Official,” since he sat behind a vast wooden desk with a tall, fringed American flag on a pole beside his desk.

Our next stop was to the county newspaper, the Reporter Dispatch, where we were marched into the newsroom. Serious looking adults sat typing or talking on the phone at cluttered desks. A man took us into the corner to show us the yellow ticker tape, which, he explained, brought in the news from around the world. We marveled at its instantaneity. It was 1:30 PM.

The author, pictured in the mid 1960s, Irvington, NY. (Courtesy)
The author, pictured in the mid 1960s, Irvington, NY. (Courtesy)

He was reading the tape aloud, noting the news stories flowing in from around the world, when suddenly he started shouting. Our teachers screamed. The whole newsroom exploded into pandemonium. Someone shouted, “Get these kids out of here!” and we were rapidly hustled down the stairs and into the bus. In the tumult I had overheard the word "president" and I solemnly told my buddy that I thought the president of the company had just died.

When we returned to the school, an announcement was made that the president of the United States was dead. Everyone in my class room burst into tears. As we sat there sobbing, my father came to take me home. Choking back my sorrow, I tried to say goodbye to my friends, but they were too stunned to speak. Even my best friend, Owen Astrachan, could not look at me.

My family spent the next days seated on cardboard boxes in our new home watching an endless stream of grim black and white images. Even to children, it seemed like world had been broken forever.

And after half a century, those who lived through it can still feel the icy shadow of that dark and monumental grief.

This program aired on November 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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