by Nyle Kardatzke (Ethiopia 1962-64)
On Friday evening, I stayed in Adi Ugri for a quiet weekend rather than making the bus trip to Asmara. My housemate, John Rude, had gone to the city, so I had the house to myself. When I turned off my light it was 9:00 p.m. in Adi Ugri. It was 12:00 noon in Dallas, Texas.
Saturday morning, November 23, 1963, was a typical Eritrean morning in the dry season. It was chilly at sunrise under a clear blue sky, and by late morning the air was warm and scented with flower blossoms and cooking fires. Our maid, Lete cooked scrambled eggs and coffee for my breakfast that morning and went to work on laundry.
On Saturday, November 24, Khasai Ghebrehiwet, an Eritrean friend came to visit. Kasai glanced at my poster of John Kennedy that was just inside the front door.
“There’s President Kennedy,” he said casually, “He’s dead, you know.”
I thought he was making a bad joke, but he went on to explain.
“He was riding in a car in Dallas, Texas.”
“What kind of nut would wreck the president’s car?” I wondered.
Kasai went on to say that Kennedy had been shot. He said he was “shot in the head.”
I knew that could have been fatal. How could such a thing happen in the most powerful country in the world?
Khasai could see that I was shocked. He must have thought I had already heard the news.
“No!” I yelled and walked around the house to the back with my mouth open in shock.
When Lete heard me yell and saw me staggering, she brought both arms up to the sides of her head in an Eritrean way of grieving and she cried too.
Khasai slipped out into the street and hurried away, not knowing what to say.
I packed and quickly caught a bus to Asmara. In Asmara, the clip-clop of the ghari horses seemed eerie and far away, not charming like before. At lunch, the middle-aged Italian cafe owner rose from his desk at the door and stood solemnly at attention as another PCV and I entered. All the customers stopped talking until we were seated.
That night, Kagnew Station Radio was playing dirge music. The music was unspeakably sad, like the night itself. We didn’t know that C.S. Lewis, the English Christian writer, also had died on November 22, 1963. That news was lost in the shock and grief of the Kennedy assassination.
The probable assassin had been arrested in Dallas and was being held at a courthouse jail. The suspect was a 23-year old man named “Lee Harvey Oswald.” His name was suddenly infamous, especially to Americans.
Oswald was to be moved from a city jail to a more secure prison, and plans for his transportation had been announced by an overly talkative Dallas police official. A night club owner named Jack Ruby was waiting at the jail when Oswald was led out under heavy guard. Ruby pulled out a small pistol, lept toward Oswald, and shot him in the stomach. A news picture showed Oswald doubled over in pain.
I was on my way to see an American friend, and I hadn’t heard that Oswald had been shot when I arrived.
My friend announced, “Somebody shot Oswald!”
We sat down in front of the radio and listened as Kagnew Station Radio reported Oswald’s condition and his chance of surviving.
“Live, Oswald, live!” I yelled at the radio. The world needed to know what was behind his crime, and people needed to hear from Oswald himself.
It was not to be. Oswald slipped away into history.
“How could there be two ghastly shootings on one weekend? What was happening to the world?” I wondered.
On Monday, November 25, we five Peace Corps teachers took the bus back from Asmara to Adi Ugri. Across a canyon south of Asmara, we saw a police station’s flag hanging limply at half-staff as though grieving with us.
When the bus rolled through Adi Ugri, all the shops were closed, Muslim and Christian shops alike. The Muslim shops had always been open on Christian holidays, and the Christian shopkeepers were open on Muslim holidays. We had never seen all the shops closed.
On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, everyone grieved together. Someone said later that Kennedy’s assassination was the most widely grieved death the world had seen.
The three Peace Corps girls in Adi Ugri had a radio, and the five of us gathered at the girls’ house on the school compound to listen to Kennedy’s funeral on Armed Forces Radio. The funeral began at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. It was 7:30 p.m. in Ethiopia.
The next week Time and Newsweek magazines showed Jackie Kennedy grieving majestically beside little JFK, Jr., as he saluted his father’s coffin. It was the little boy’s third birthday. Emperor Haile Selassie was shown walking in the funeral procession beside the towering figure of French President Charles de Gaule. Other world leaders followed in their hundreds.
There were many reactions to Kennedy’s death around the world. A mob celebrated somewhere in the Middle East. An Eritrean man in the town of Senafe had been earning a small stipend for distributing dried milk for the Agency for International Development, AID. When the man distributing the milk heard of the assassination, he cried and moaned, “That’s the end of the milk! It’s the end of the milk!”
Soon after the Kennedy assassination, popular music changed from folk songs and sentimental music to acid rock and other violent music. The sixties began with the Kennedy assassination, and in some ways, the sixties have not ended.
Our Peace Corps group had flown from Idlewild Airport in New York City to Ethiopia in 1962. When we returned to the United States in 1964, the same airport had become the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The name was changed on Christmas Eve 1963.
Nyle Kardatzke lives and writes in Indianapolis. He studied economics in order to better understand the lives of people in Eritrea where he taught in the Peace Corps as a young man from 1962 to 1964. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. He taught economics at Marquette University in Milwaukee before becoming a private school headmaster. He worked as the Head of School at three private schools before retiring from school headships. He has three adult children and ten grandchildren.