[Recently, I was surprised to find the following diary entry. I had not remembered that I'd composed it in my dorm room at Indiana University in the fall of my sophomore year:]
November 22, 1963
It is hard to describe my feelings at this hour - shock, disbelief, fear. I was waiting in the hallway in Ballantine Hall here at Indiana University to see Mr. Solt, a history teacher, about my schedule. Reading the bulletin board outside of the philosophy office, I overheard one of the secretaries in that office telling that she had heard on her radio that President Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, along with the Texas Governor (Connally) had been shot in Dallas, Texas, and had been taken to the hospital. Walking in the history department I told those secretaries what I had heard. One had just been talking on the phone to her mother and confirmed my report. People began pouring into the office. This was about 1:55 P.M. One secretary went home and got her radio. By this time, about 20-30 people had stepped into the office and were now listening to the secretary’s radio. We heard numerous reports. It was finally confirmed that he was dead. Some of the women cried. I rested my chin on my umbrella and stared at the floor. It was, and is still, impossible to believe. The radio reports are still going full strong - giving interviews from many congressional and other leaders.
I left the office and walked back slowly to Foster Quadrangle in the misty rain.
I sit here now wanting to scream or to hear that it isn’t true. Basically, I liked Kennedy and his actions. I suppose Johnson will now run for President next year. Luckily he was not also killed (he wasn’t wounded, as reported). My condolences to Mrs. Kennedy and her family.
In an article I wrote for several New Mexican newspapers in 1983, when we were living in Santa Fe (”We Were All ‘Kennedy’s Kids’”), on the 20th anniversary, I described the feelings about Kennedy before his election and after. His religion had been a major topic during his campaign. I had this to say: “When Kennedy was elected, he was a little too rich, a little too good looking, a little too Catholic for my mother. Also, it was the first time she was older than the President. By the time he was assassinated, he had come along and won her respect.”
Two days after the assassination, on the afternoon of Sunday, November 24, my roommate Tom and I suddenly decided to go to the funeral. He called his future brother-in-law, Denny, at Purdue University who had Tom’s car on campus. Denny said he and a couple of friends had been thinking the same thing. We quickly got ready - suits and ties and trench coats, of course - and I dashed to a drugstore to cash a $20 check to cover my share of the gas (29 cents a gallon), food, and cigarettes. (I came home on Tuesday with change.) As soon as the three showed up from Purdue, we set out, as fast as we could, through the pre-Interstate mountain roads of West Virginia (”The Famous Hairpin Curve!” and “The Famous Horseshoe Curve!” were worrisome maneuvers in the middle of the night.) I was the sole non-Catholic in the car and listened to my four companions speak often of Kennedy’s Catholicism: “We finally get one of our own elected - and they kill him.”
We arrived in Washington around 8 a.m. We called home (collect, of course) and told our parents where we were. My mother was not at all surprised. “I knew you’d be there,” she said, while my father asked, “Where are you?”
We had arrived early enough to stand at curbside on Memorial Bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. We waited for hours. By the time the procession began to come by (we followed the events with our tiny transistor radio), the crowds were 10 deep, at least, maybe 20. While the camera could not penetrate the tinted glass windows of the long trail of black limousines, we could see inside and instantly recognized the occupants: President Charles de Gaulle, Emperor Haile Selassie, Queen Frederika of Greece, and so many other heads of state. I said I would never in my life see this many heads of state, and certainly not within the span of 30 minutes. While I have seen more than my share, in part due to being in the Peace Corps and my wife being in the Foreign Service, I have still not matched the number of presidents and prime ministers and emperors I saw that afternoon.
Watching PBS’ “American Experience” two-part series on JFK this week, I heard one of his staff describe the beautiful weather they encountered in Dallas on the day of his assassination as “Kennedy weather.” It instantly reminded me of the day of the funeral: It was a crisp late-November day with gorgeous blue skies and bright sun.
A few nights ago, I spoke on the phone with Tom, my former roommate. Both of us discussed the assassination and funeral in great detail. We agreed that it was one of the most memorable series of events of our lives.
John Sherman served in Nigeria/Biafra 1966-67. After evacuation due to the onset of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, he spent his second year as a PCV English teacher in Malawi. He returned on his own to Nigeria to work with the Red Cross during the war. His experiences resulted in a book, War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra, and the libretto for an opera, “Biafra” (the 20 minutes scored and performed so far are viewable on YouTube). Sherman later worked at Peace Corps/Washington twice and at Peace Corps/Ghana. He lives in Indianapolis, where he is a writer and photographer and the owner of a public relations firm.