I was in the Atlantic Ocean, sailing on a ship back to Africa, and I was nine years old.
Back in the day, when people asked each other where they were when Kennedy was shot, you heard riveting tales of mass hysteria, school shutdowns, weeping teachers, and long family vigils in front of the television as Walter Cronkite fought back tears while removing those stone-age black glasses as he officially announced to America that it was over.
Some years later, when I would ask folks where they were when Kennedy was shot, there were two reactions:
1) Ted Kennedy was shot?
2) Uh…I wasn’t even born till 20 years later.
Flash forward, and President Kennedy is to the Twitter generation what President Lincoln was to us: history!
But back to that ship. Ours was a nomadic Foreign Service family with my father serving in the U.S. Embassy in Ghana. That November we had been on home leave — always a strange ritual, where my brother and sister and I would hang out with cousins in Chicago and be dazzled and intimidated by the fast pace and fancy commerce of American life. Part of me couldn’t wait to get back home — to Accra.
As a former Navy guy, Pop loved ships, and back then the government allowed us the choice of transport, as long as it was a U.S. carrier. So, eschewing those fancy PAN AM flights to West Africa, where you got dressed up to fly, and Bo Derek was your stewardess, we chose to board the U.S.S. INDEPENDENCE.
The boarding ritual out of New York harbor was always very thrilling, with friends seeing us off on the dock, with ribbons and balloons streaming from our deck to the shore. The passengers were a motley mix of Europeans and Africans going home, plus the various tribes of Americans – government, businessmen, military and academics – heading back to their posts. Finally, the ship’s giant horn blasted and we were off. It was the morning of November 22, 1963.
After settling in our cabins, we children were hustled off to the Playroom — which I considered an indignity since it was filled with screaming younger children, and was proctored by two nurses in crisp white uniforms. We weren’t old enough yet to join the teens, who always seemed to get into trouble in one nautical nook or another. The adults were partying in the large lounge — cocktails in hand, soft music playing from a live band, Mom looking elegant in her new cocktail dress from Woody’s. It promised to be a gala voyage, as all ship voyages were in those days.
It is an accident of history that I am forced to confess what I was doing the exact moment that I heard that Kennedy was shot. I was sitting at a tiny table in the Playroom, weaving a POTHOLDER on a small loom. There, I said it. I assume that because the nurses weren’t technically allowed to drug us, they used craft therapy as a fine substitute in this Junior Cuckoo’s Nest in the middle of the ocean. And it worked! Note that my sister, who was also dutifully weaving potholders, remained calm many years later when her plane, carrying 100 PCVs destined for Zaire, was taken hostage by Ugandan mad man Idi Amin.
Suddenly, amidst the chaos of screaming children, the black telephone on the wall of the Playroom rang, and one of the nurses picked it up. After listening for a few seconds, she slammed the receiver down and shouted across the room to the other nurse, “Kennedy’s been shot!” My head was down, concentrating on the over-under-over-under potholder weaving and I glanced up at this news not quite understanding what was going on, except that somehow, President Kennedy was DEAD.
Except that he wasn’t. About 20 minutes later, the same black phone rang, and the same nurse shouted to her colleague across the room: “Kennedy’s dead!” In retrospect, that would have been a good time to give us drugs, because in my nine-year old know-it-all state, all I could think of was: “Duhhhh. We already know that from the first phone call.” Clearly, my brain — not to mention my heart — was not developed enough to know the difference between being shot, and being killed, never mind appropriate behavior under the circumstances. And it was also confusing because while I knew that President Kennedy was my president, I also counted President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana as my president. In any case, it is miracle that I kept my mouth shut on these matters as we were herded like cattle out of the Playroom to join our parents in the lounge.
The once gala lounge was like a morgue. Lights dimmed, music cut off, the clinking of drinks now accompanied by clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke — as passengers in their cocktail garb huddled around a tiny, crackling transistor radio, the size of a packet of cigarettes, to hear the news.
The rest of the long voyage is a blur, but I can only imagine the sorrow and frustration of the passengers desperate for news in the middle of the ocean — my father, a lifelong Democrat and Kennedy supporter, chief among them. Finally, we reached our first port of call — Yemen! — and the passengers rushed ashore to buy newspapers with screaming headlines — in Arabic.
When we got back to post, the U.S. Embassy in Ghana — in this special country where Kennedy’s first Peace Corps volunteers served — continued to receive long lines of heartfelt condolences from Ghanaian citizens and members of the diplomatic corps.
Postscript: Five years later, during the tumultuous late sixties, our family was living in India. In April 1968, we got the shocking news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. And in June 1968 the family went on leave — only this time we went to East Africa. There we were on safari, in the middle of the Tanzanian plains, not unlike the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — in tents, when Pop got a hand written message that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and he was to report back to New Delhi immediately — ready for the revolution back home. With a heavy sigh, he got up, crumpled up the note, threw it in the fire, but not before using it to light up a cigar, as he had when President Kennedy had been assassinated.
Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977-79) has lived in India, Ghana, Germany, Madagascar, &Tanzania — and has never met a plane, train or automobile on which she did not want to escape.