John F. Kennedy had a profound effect on all of us not yet encumbered with stone-hard impressions of what a President should be. He was endowed with so much charisma that the entire country had its spirit lifted, just knowing he stood for them.
As such, his murder on that grey, November day of 1963 brought all of America to its knees. The collective feeling of loss was profound. All forward motion came to a halt. Words of solace rang hollow. Faces were white and cold. Everywhere was deathly quiet. It was the day the music died…too, it was the day that America’s newfound hope died.
Teachers interrupted classes with the somber news. Children found their mothers weeping and their fathers arriving home from work visibly shaken. Families piled into living rooms to watch television, glued to the news out of Dallas. Our leader had fallen.
We all encounter life changing events: tragedies, celebrations, or unforeseen revelations and encounters that come upon us in the blink of an eye. Events never foreknown, or prearranged, or expected. Events that shake us to the core…events that change our lives to the end of our days.
A health scare, witnessing a shooting, an airplane that suddenly drops 1,000 feet before the pilot regains control, fighting in Vietnam when your outpost is overrun, watching in horror as towers collapse in New York, the murder of a friend or family member…there’s thousands of examples. You know what they are, dear reader…they’ve happened to you.
For me, President Kennedy’s death was the beginning of three days that melded into a life-changing experience that, since that time, has deeply affected my outlook on life’s precarious nature.
In 1963, I was an Information Specialist in the US Army stationed at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC. Two months prior to the shooting, I had briefly met President Kennedy when he paid a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (as it was known back then).
Three days after his death, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. My life-changing event lasted those three days. From the moment he was shot until his wife, Jackie, lit the eternal flame at his gravesite.
I was part of the Army public relations team in the Military District of Washington. Not only was our office tasked with providing information to the news media regarding any contingent of the US Army that would be participating during any of the events of the upcoming weekend, but too, it was our responsibility to plan and monitor all media stations along the route of the funeral procession. Keeping in mind that members of the news media were converging on Washington from all parts of the world.
For 21 hours, President Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. More than 250,000 people paid respects.
For reasons I cannot explain and do not understand, most of that weekend was a blur. I remember the activity level was beyond hectic, I remember working night and day, providing news releases, fielding questions from thousands of members of the news media, and mostly, preparing for the coming Monday, the day of the President’s interment.
At 10 a.m. on the morning of the funeral I was taken by military vehicle to the cemetery where I would wait until the procession arrived around 2:43 p.m. More than a million people lined the streets…many cried openly.
Throughout that day I was stationed on a wooden platform that had been constructed below the Custis-Lee Mansion (today known as the Arlington House) and just above the burial site. That platform held approximately 100 members of the media. Well known pictures of the cortege (funeral procession) crossing the Lincoln Memorial Bridge with the Lincoln Memorial in the background were taken from that platform.
Following mass at Saint Matthews Cathedral, the casket was carried by a horse-drawn caisson to Arlington National Cemetery. (A caisson is a two-wheeled cart designed to carry artillery ammunition and is used to bear the casket of the deceased in military and state funerals).
Black Jack, a coal-black Morgan-American Quarter Horse followed the caisson with boots reversed in the stirrups symbolizing a fallen leader.
I remember that there were certain notables I looked for at the gravesite. The ones I recognized were the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prince Phillip and Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, both of the United Kingdom. There were others, but these were the dignitaries I wanted to see. Kennedy’s funeral was the largest gathering of foreign dignitaries at any funeral in the United States, drawing 220 foreign dignitaries from 92 foreign nations, including 19 heads of state.
There were sights and sounds that will stay with me until my death. Muffled drums, steel horseshoes as they struck the pavement, Black Jack, the jet flyover, taps, “Ruffles and Flourishes,” “Hail to the Chief,” a detachment of cadets from the Irish Defense Forces performing a silent graveside drill.
And at the end of the service, I watched Mrs. Kennedy light the eternal flame.
At 3:34 p.m., the casket was lowered into the ground.
On November 28, 1963, Thanksgiving Day, Mrs. Kennedy visited the gravesite. I was there representing the US Army. It was an unexpected visit. A simple white picket fence, maybe 20-by-20 feet, surrounded the grassy gravesite with the eternal flame flickering in the wind. Thousands stood in line behind a single strand of rope that seemed to stretch forever.
After kneeling and saying a prayer, she opted to walk around the gravesite and view it with Washington as a backdrop. It had been raining and the ground was slippery. I took her arm to steady her from falling and expressed my sympathy. She merely nodded, but it was a sincere expression of appreciation.
That life-changing event was 55 years ago…. or was it yesterday?
“Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” John F. Kennedy
Thanks for reading, John
John Preston Smith is the author of nine novels, all are listed at jprestonsmith.com. Direct questions or comments to facebook.com/johnprestonsmith. Proceeds support Hoops Family Children’s Hospital in Huntington, W.Va.