Mesa Musings: A nation's loss, and a lousy holiday

We were dazed. We could not wrap our heads around the situation. It seemed there was nothing to be thankful for.

Thanksgiving at our Costa Mesa home 47 years ago seemed an afterthought. Six days earlier, our brilliant young president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas, and the nation grieved.

We college students were particularly devastated; I was 18. The music had died.

Some old guy from Texas became our president and life would never be the same.

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I awoke at 11 a.m., alone in the house. My parents were working, and my two younger siblings were in school. I hadn't gotten home until long after participating in the opening night performance of a student theater production at Orange Coast College. After the final curtain, cast members had gathered at Bob's Big Boy Restaurant on 17th Street to celebrate.

I groggily climbed from bed, poured a bowl of Grape Nuts and turned on the TV. I'd already missed a couple of morning classes, but had time to make my 1 p.m. seminar.

What greeted me on the screen was the image of a large banquet hall with people milling about. The announcer said something to the effect that this "was where the president was to have delivered his luncheon speech."

Why the change in plans, I wondered idly?

Then came the blow. The president had been shot. What? I put down the cereal bowl.

Things were chaotic on the screen, the information was sketchy. Then, at 11:38 a.m., Walter Cronkite — the nation's authoritative news source — broke in to report the unthinkable. In a voice cracking with emotion he reported that our charismatic young president was dead.


I dressed quickly and drove to school. I needed to be with friends.

As I entered OCC's Student Center I saw students weeping, speaking in hushed tones or sitting in stunned silence. No one could make sense of what had taken place. I found a table of friends and pulled up a chair. No one smiled. No one laughed. There were no glib remarks.

I skipped my 1 p.m. class, as did almost everyone else on campus.

Later, I went to my car in the parking lot and lay across the front seat. I needed privacy. I gazed up at a leaden sky and wept for maybe the first time since adolescence.

The nation was glued to the television all weekend and to the state funeral on Nov. 25. Classes were canceled. We watched the casket taken by caisson across the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Arlington National Cemetery. For the first time, we saw the gravesite on the hill and the eternal flame. I made a vow to visit, and I did decades later.

Their hearts broken, Americans embraced the young widow in black and her two beautiful children.

Thanksgiving arrived six days after the shooting and proved an ordeal. We moved about in a stupor. Norman Rockwell family-gathered-around-the-table paintings offered no comfort. They mocked our circumstance.

Three weeks later — unbeknownst to my family — I sat before an Army sergeant in a recruiting office in Santa Ana, a portrait of the vigorous young president still hanging on the wall behind him. I signed on the bottom line, enlisting for JFK. Six weeks after that, I was on my way to Ft. Ord for basic training.

But I didn't really sign up for him; I did it for myself. I'd goofed off in college. It was time to get serious. I turned to Uncle Sam.

President Kennedy, in his inaugural address three years earlier, had asked each of us to consider what we could do for our country. And this was my response.

My father had been at Pearl Harbor in 1941, my great uncle in the trenches of France in 1918. I had no less an obligation.

The world changed in November 1963. It was as lousy a Thanksgiving as I've experienced.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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