Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The day JFK died - Nov. 22, 1963

Nov. 22, 1963 . . . was a day that changed my life and that of millions of other Americans and citizens around the world.

That was the day a young, vibrant and energetic young president – John Fitzgerald Kennedy – was shot and killed, allegedly by bullets from a lone assassin in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
Within minutes, the shots allegedly fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled little man with communist party ties and a penchant for the dramatic were heard round the world.

I was at home that Thursday afternoon, having lunch prepared by my abuela (grandma) Nana. I didn’t bother to check the news. The sopa de fideo (vermicelli soup), refried beans and warm tortillas I was eating while Nana listened to Mexican music in the kitchen belied that anything had changed. I ate at home for lunch to visit Nana, mostly. My house was six blocks away from the high school. Most of my friends had their lunch at the school cafeteria at Hebbronville High School. Walking back to the high school, I felt as if something strange had happened. It was a cloudy and dreary November day with just a slight chill in the air to let us in Texas knows that your high school football team was in the state playoffs and had a big game that Friday. My walk was brisk. I seemed to have taken only five minutes for the regular 10-minute walk. I looked across the street toward the band hall and I saw several of my friends milling around on the lawn in front of the South Wing of the high school. There was an eerie silence to the scene. The usual exuberance of youth was missing. No one was clowning around. Muted whispers seemed to fill the air. Every now and then, a whisper would be picked up by the wind and travel freely and openly for all to hear.

“He’s dead,” I heard one of my friends tell another student.

“Who?” came the obvious question.

“Kennedy!, “he answered. “The president is dead!”

I thought it was a devious prank someone was trying to pull. I smiled as I walked toward the group just outside the band hall. I slowed my pace and could not quite decide whom to greet. My friend Rene Ovidio Garcia solved that problem. He walked hurriedly toward me with anxious eyes, his chest pounding. He was breathing heavily when he blurted out, “They killed JFK!”
I stopped in my tracks. The overgrown grass on the school lawn tickled my ankles and I felt the sudden buzz of a wasp flying by. I was in shock. I was in a daze a dream, half-awake and half-cognizant of only my immediate surroundings.

“You hadn’t heard?” Rene asked.

“Who did it?” I asked.

“It’s on TV now. Walter Cronkite just announced he had died in a hospital in Dallas. It’s for reals, Manuel,” he said.

I uttered a few choice cuss words in Spanish and grabbed my forehead with my right hand as if trying to rub away the words I had just heard.

The bell rang. On cue, we shuffled into the hallways of the school and made our way toward our classes. We were like zombies walking, no shuffling, to our rooms. Some of us stopped at our lockers to pick up textbooks. Most students just walked to their classrooms. We all knew there would be no lessons today from the teachers for reality had just given us the biggest lesson of all – life can change in an instant.

Inside the classrooms, there was a unusual silence. Teachers greeted us and asked us to sit down and be quiet in honor of the president. Some of the history teachers wanted to have a discussion, but the students just wanted to stay in their seats and, I believe, mourn silently. Many were crying. I could see from my classroom to the other wing where one of our male teachers, a coach whom we all admired, was at his desk just rubbing his eyes and crying. Finally, one of our star athletes went to him and consoled him, putting his arm around him. Suddenly, the 17-year-old was consoling his mentor, a coach who was about the age of the young president, 43.
In my classroom, one of the girls seemed unaffected by the tragedy. While most of us had sullen faces and were even praying silently, she was smiling from ear-to-ear, her eyes beaming with a sense of accomplishment. She was reading a book and would look up every now and then almost scoff or condemn those of us who were mourning.
“I am glad he’s dead,” she blurted out.

No one said a thing.

“He was no good for our country,” she said. “He got what he deserved.

Most of the boys just smiled and said nothing. I could not hold back and asked her, respectfully, to stay quiet and show respect for the president of the United States and our feelings that afternoon.

“I don’t know why you all are upset?” she asked. “He was not a good man, and he certainly was not a good president. He wasn’t my president.”

I remembered how close the election between JFK and Richard Nixon was – too close. Some said he stole the election. Others said that the popular vote was for Nixon and he should have been president. Then, we had all those inexplicable events – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the rumors of JFK and Marilyn Monroe. They seemed to weaken the perception of whom some of us as saw as a brilliant young man who was going to lead us, finally, into prosperity and honor in the 20th century. The words, “He wasn’t my president” stung like a wet whip with thorns crawling of my skin. As a Mexicano, I knew what it was like to be dismissed simply by someone saying, “He’s not one of us.” I knew the sting of not been accepted. Kennedy was a Catholic. I thought, perhaps this why this girl did not like him.

I started to get up to talk to the girl when I got the look of disapproval from my teacher, urging me to stay seated. Out of respect for her, I did. The girl continued her verbal onslaught.
“Like I said, I’m glad he’s dead. . .” she said and seemed to smile even more brightly.
One of the girls in my class, Florinda Davila, could not stay quiet. Strongly and confidently, she challenged the statements by her classmates.

“You shouldn’t be saying that,” she told her. “This is a national tragedy. A man has died, a very import man has died, and we have to show respect.”

A verbal argument ensued. Florinda essentially told her she was not a good person because of her feelings.

“This is America,” she answered. “I can feel any way I want.”

Florinda said, “Feel it, but keep it to yourself. We’re embarrassed by you and what you have said.”

The boys in the class just sat and watched now. Florinda and other girls were showing much courage to speak up. Ironically, the teacher, also a woman, let the discussion progress. Later, she would say it was one of the best classes she had taught.

The questioning had now turned to glares toward the offending student. The other girls had moved their torso forward as if challenging the offending student to say more derogatory statements about our dead president, a hero to many. Most of us were Catholic and having a Catholic elected president was like a blessing from God. Most of our families had pictures of the young president right up there with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgen de Guadalupe. A photo of President Kennedy, it is safe to say, was in almost 90 percent of the homes of Catholic or Mexicano homes in my hometown. He was in our living rooms and dining rooms. He was part of the family. Now, he was dead. I understood why we, and especially the girls, were offended by the derogatory statements about Kennedy and the vile disrespect for our dead president. It had been about 20 minutes now and the discussion ensued.

Then, there was silence. David Alamaraz, my friend and one of the leaders of the school, breathed a sigh of relief and looked at me. He, too, like me, had wanted to get involved, but decided to say silent. The silence was eerie. The disgruntled student face started to change. She turned red, as red as the fruit at the Poteet Strawberry Festival just north of our town.
Suddenly, she burst out and said. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and fell to her knees, pleading for forgiveness.

Florinda had her now and answered, “How can we forgive you for what you said. You hurt all of us.”

David and I looked at each other, stunned at the candor of Florinda and the other girls who were agreeing with her.

The disgruntled young woman had one more, “I’m sorry!” in her before getting up and sprinting into the hallway toward the girls’ restroom, letting out sobs reminiscent of those of the legendary “La Llorona (Crying Woman)” of South Texas lore.

Without hesitation, Florinda and all the girls in the class ran after her.

At that point, we (the boys and the teacher) did not know what was going to happen. They never returned. We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to radio broadcast updates on the assassination. We learned a Texan, vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, was our new president. Some of us had portable black-and-white TVs in the class, and saw First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sobbing, her dress stained with her husband’s blood.

We went home in a daze, when the final bell rang. A period of mourning had started for us and the nation and we would never be the same again – never. For the next week, there was no music, no parties, no fiestas and if you had a backyard barbecue, it was in the most modest of ways, even in deep South Texas.

As of the girls who fled after the disgruntled one in our classroom, I did not see them until the football game that Friday. The disgruntled girls was in the band, and seemed okay. Florinda was in the band, too, and they were talking. Life went on and, in Texas, so did football….but that’s another story.

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