Those of us who were born before 1950 can certainly remember where we were and what we were doing the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As with the news of Pearl Harbor, it was a defining moment of a generation.
When I asked for Pearl Harbor memories of those who recalled the day, Cousin Don responded with his Kennedy Assassination memories. Since I had already written my memories of that day, I decided to make a page for our memories of this day in our lives.
I would like to invite all of you who wish, to send me your memories of that day in your life. You will be surprised at what is right on the tip of your memory. Set your timer for five or ten minutes; don’t labor over it. You will be amazed at the results.
We were scheduled to depart for Bergstrom AFB early the next morning. After checking out of quarters, we all gathered in the passenger waiting area ready for boarding the C47 back to Bergstrom. We boarded the plane shortly thereafter and were ready to go. Then the pilot started the port engine. When he tried to start the starboard engine, a lot of flame shot up and out of the motor. The air crew said that there would be a delay, so we returned to the passengers' area. So we waited with little to do except watch the black and white TV in the waiting room, while the engine was being repaired.
By late morning it was clear that the engine was not going to be ready as soon as the crew had hoped. Some time near or just after eleven a.m. the crew-chief said we would be departing about 2:00 p.m. and for us to remain in the passengers' area.
Not long after, the TV was interrupted with the announcement that the president had been shot. Shock and disbelief was the immediate reaction. We all had our eyes glued to the TV for any news on what was happening in Dallas. The borders were closed and all air traffic departures were canceled. There was a lot of speculation on what was really happening. It was some time before we knew if we would go home that day. During the late afternoon we received permission to depart El Paso for Bergstrom AFB and home.
If we had classes the next week, I don't remember them. But I do remember seeing Jack Ruby shoot Oswald and watching the funeral on live TV. It was a very sad and confusing week, those days in November 1963.
June 28, 2004
My memories of that day pack a double whammy for me. I had been on a three-month tour of the Middle East and Europe with some teacher friends; we had been missionary teachers in New Guinea and were touring Europe before picking up the threads of our lives at home.
That cold and gray November day was spent with my grandfather’s nephew in Hoptrup, Denmark, on the Jutland Peninsula. We were on our way to England for the return trip to the States, and my Danish relatives were the last of the European families we were to visit. I was very excited, knowing I would see the village of my grandfather’s childhood.
Jakob Paulsen had invited the local minister to be with us that day, in order to translate. After a typically Danish noon meal, Cousin Jakob and the minister drove us to the church at Fole where my grandfather was baptized and where my great-grandparents were buried.
The church was small and quaint, in a rural village. It was not old by Danish standards, having been built in the mid-1800s. As we walked into the cemetery surrounding the church, Jakob Paulsen pointed out the head stones designating the burial places of my great-grandfather, Andreas Wilbeck, and his second wife Ellen, the young stepmother who raised my grandfather. As we walked into the silent church, a feeling of quiet reverence came upon me, such a different feeling from that of walking into the grand cathedrals in the large cities of Europe. Following Jakob Paulsen to the front of the church, I noticed the high pulpit, the stained-glass windows, the hand-carved altar.
We stopped before a small, freestanding baptismal font. It was hand carved from stone and was many centuries old. I was overcome with emotion upon the realization that my grandfather had been baptized in this font, ninety years before. Thus began my lifelong pursuit of the lives and stories of my ancestors.
Late that evening, as my friends and I were driving away from Jakob Paulsen’s home, we tuned the car radio to a German station and heard the words, “KENNEDY IST TOT.”
We were appalled. A feeling of helplessness swept through the little Volkswagen. We were far from home, in a foreign country; we had nothing but a German language radio station to satisfy our desire for details.
When we finally reached our hotel in Germany, we were unable to learn anything more than the fact that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
My friend and I lay sleepless all night, listening for sounds of war outside of our hotel. We sat bolt upright with every noise; at one point we were sure we heard gunshots. War never came.
Finally, the long night was over. We scoured the city for an English language newspaper, and it was finally procured. We spent the long morning discussing the news of the assassination.
That afternoon, we continued on our journey, by now in the final stages. The joy of traveling was gone, and only the desire to be home remained; to be home with our fellow Americans sharing the sorrow and sadness of what had happened to our country. We felt intensely our vulnerability as a nation.
Nearly a century before, my grandfather had been baptized in a Medieval font in a small village church. As a teenager, he chose to cast his lot with America, a new country in a new world, where he could be free from German conscription, free to better his life. Had he not made that choice, I would never have been born.
And it was that America that was threatened, that America which now seemed so vulnerable, so unable to offer comfort and safety to the huddled masses.
It felt as though we would never be safe again.
Our president was assassinated the very day I found my grandfather’s roots in “The Old Country” from which he had fled so long ago.