Local residents remember 'The Moment'
The moment is frozen into the collective psyche of a generation that would see the world change forever. It was 12:30 p.m. on Friday Nov. 22, 1963. The place was Dealey Plaza, Dallas Texas. President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and others were traveling in a motorcade when shots (three per the official report) were fired. Bullets struck President Kennedy in the neck and the head, fatally wounding him. It would be 1:30 p.m. before the White House made the official announcement of his death.
The moment was not broadcast via live television because the area through which the motorcade was traveling was not considered important enough for a live broadcast. In fact, most of the few members of the media who were accompanying the motorcade were traveling behind it. (The majority of the surviving video recordings and photographs of the assassination were taken by amateurs.)
After the fact, word of the shooting and the president's subsequent demise spread quickly. The nation sat in stunned silence. Grown men and women wept openly at the news and at the sights of the funeral a few days later. It has been called the moment when innocence in the U.S. died.
In observance of the 50th anniversary of that moment, The Mexico Ledger asked for personal remembrances from area residents. Below are the memories of students, members of the workforce, and those connected with the military.
Chuck Rentschler was a fourth grade student in Mrs. Baber's class at McMillan School. "We had just returned to our classroom after having lunch and recess, when our classroom door opened and our Principal Miss Virginia Botts entered," he said. "Miss Botts told our class that during a parade in downtown Dallas this morning President Kennedy had been shot."
He and his classmates were stunned as she continued with the news that President Kennedy had died. "We could not believe that our U.S. President had been killed," he said. "For the remainder of our school day, we talked about the assassination of President Kennedy."
Kathleen M. Robnett was a sophomore at Community R-6 who had just gotten out of her Biology class. "When I walked into the hall, I was greeted by sobbing schoolmates and teachers," she said. "When I asked what happened, I was told that 'the president has been shot'; then the news changed to 'the president is dead.'"
Faculty and students alike found themselves gripped by a fear of an imminent attack. "The lesson plan of the day was forgotten as we discussed how we would prepare for the Russian attack," she said. "I had always been concerned about nuclear bombs and the fact that my family did not have a bomb shelter; many seemed to share my worry."
At home, Robnett found herself drawn into the television coverage. "When I arrived home I found the black and white television contained only news about the assassination of President Kennedy – on all three channels," she said. "That was all the news that was on all weekend."
Vicki Mason worked at the Mexico Southwestern Bell Telephone Office as a long distance operator. She had arrived early for her 1-10 p.m. shift to find a flurry of excitement and talk in the operators' lounge area. It was there she heard the news from co-workers.
"The Head Operator came to the lounge and asked that all operators report in early to work as the whole switchboard had lit up with calls," she said.
At the time, Mexico was the long distance connection hub for 13 small towns such as Laddonia, Santa Fe, and Vandalia. Anyone wanting to make a long distance call needed to dial "O" first. Call traffic that day was understandably heavy as everyone tried to call friends and family to let them know about President Kennedy being shot. "We all worked as fast as we could to keep up," she said.
Mason heard the actual news of his death from a Dallas Information Officer. "I remember feeling so sad and thinking how could anyone want to kill a President," she said. "This President had just led us a year before through a Cuban Missile Crisis! I thought of Jackie and those two darling children and wondered how they were going to get through this tragedy."
Etta Albright who worked for Continental Electric Co. in Kansas City was on lunch break when she first heard. The rest of the workday was "finished in shock and silence."
Like many Americans, she questioned why this had happened as she sat engrossed in the television coverage. "We spent many hours glued to the TV," she said. "Over and over seeing the motorcade route in Dallas, with crowds lining the streets. And then tragedy strikes with the ringing of gunshots."
She recalls that her grief and that of the nation, seemed reflected in the actions of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite as he "removed his glasses, and wiped away his tears" as he delivered the news.
Her greatest reaction is for that iconic moment at JFK's funeral. "Crowds of young and old, every race and nationality gathering all over the world to pay respect to our fallen leader," she said. "How can we ever forget (son) John stepping forward and saluting that flag draped coffin as it passed by?"
Bob Herrin was a young aircraft maintenance technician assigned to the First and Second Engine Jet Aircraft Maintenance School at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas when he heard the news. At first, he thought it was a bad joke.
"One of the other students went back to the hangar to use the bathroom," he said. "When he came back, he said 'someone shot the president.' He was always playing around, joking. We just thought it was a bad joke."
The news was confirmed shortly afterwards by an instructor who also informed them that Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as president. Herrin and his fellow students wondered what they should do. "I asked the teacher what the Air Force would want us to do, as we were several weeks away from finishing the course," he said. "He [the teacher] said, 'Study hard, hit the books.' The Air Force is going to need some good mechanics!'"
Herrin recalls that there was suspicion afterwards that Cuba or Russia was responsible for Kennedy's death. "We came very close to war," he said.
Carol Rickman was an Air Force wife and mother of four who had accompanied her husband and brought her little family to a duty station at Hof Air Station in Hof, West Germany, less than 10 kilometers (a little more than six miles) from the East German border. To say the least, tension and apprehension levels in the area were high.
In fact, the couple was told at their first briefing, "in case of an East German attack, the life expectancy of Hof was about 15 minutes."
She first heard of the assassination around 4:30 p.m. (local German time) when a friend, known to be a big practical joker, called with the shocking news. "I didn't think it was funny," said Rickman. "I turned on AFN (Armed Forces Network) radio and heard the news. I was flabbergasted."
Even as she ran upstairs to tell her neighbors, she still had trouble accepting what she had heard. "It took so long for me, and for others, to really believe that this had happened. In fact, we wanted so much for this not to have happened," she said. "It was so hard to understand how/why someone hated the U.S. president so much that they would kill him."
Her husband who did not hear the news until he came home that evening cried openly when told. The prevalent fear in the area was that the "Soviets would take advantage of the chaos and invade West Germany."
The couple tried to explain to their children ages 6, 5, 4, and 3 what had happened but were uncertain if the children understood. A few days later when the base held a memorial service, they debated whether to take the children. "It was a cold, overcast day, and the service was held outside," she said. "They all stood there quietly as if they understood what a momentous time it was. I was so proud of them."
The memorial service concluded with a 21-gun salute. At that point, Rickman recalls all old enough to understand had tears in their eyes. "Everyone cried," she said. "Everyone, from officers to supposedly 'tough' NCOs, to the enlisted men and the wives and children were crying."
Rickman recalls that the local German people shared their grief. "They were almost as sad as we were," she said. "They respected him so much. They all seemed to have pictures of President Kennedy on their walls beforehand. After, they draped the pictures in black cloth as a symbol of deep mourning."