Monday, November 18, 2013

Washington Social Diary

Jackie and Caroline at JFK's casket, an image few will forget.
The JFK Assassination: Paying Respects At The Rotunda
by Carol Joynt

I was a little kid, sitting in English class at a Northern Virginia middle school only a few miles from Mount Vernon estate. My world was suburban, solid, secure, reasonably predictable, and on the occasions when there was a surprise it was generally a happy surprise. I had my parents, three siblings, a dog and a cat, and my own bedroom in a nice house.  I was not alone. There were another 70 million or so Americans who were more or less like me, young enough and innocent enough to believe that tomorrow and the next day would be like today and the day before.

At first the word “assassination” wasn't what we heard. What we heard was that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Texas. It was incomprehensible, of course. Our tearful English teacher tried to explain to our classroom of children that the President of the United States was dead. We were a generation that would eventually come to terms with mayhem and chaos, to more assassinations and to war. But on November 22, 1963 we were secure in our post World War II, baby boom bliss; a dreamy Happy-land.
The caisson arrives at the north side of the Capitol on Sunday, November 24, 1963
The north side of the Capitol today. The driveway is gone, replaced by a pedestrian plaza.
Staring at the sobbing teacher, we didn't know how to react. Some of us even giggled, as if it was a bizarre joke, but her distraught composure countered that thought. An announcement came over the public address system: school would be dismissed immediately; our yellow school buses were waiting outside.

The long and bumpy ride home was a blur. Half the kids, especially the youngest, went about their silly games, goofing off, chattering mindlessly. But there were others, including myself, who wrapped their arms around their schoolbooks and stared out the window, or pressed back tears, trying to make sense of what little we knew. Shot? Dallas? What about Jackie? What does it mean if the President is dead? Is he gone? Utterly gone?
The casket is carried up to the entrance to the Rotunda, with Mrs. Kennedy, John-John, Caroline and family following behind.
The steps to the Rotunda today are closed to the public, who must enter the building through a new subterranean Visitors Center.
The historic steps at the north side of the Capitol, which have witnessed inaugurations and funerals.
I arrived at home, as always, barging through the kitchen door. On a typical school day my mother would be there, waiting with a plate of sandwiches and chips, some milk and cookies. But the world had spun off its axis. The kitchen was empty. From the basement rec room I heard the TV. I clambered down the steps and found my mother sunken into a wing chair in front of the tube, gaping at Walter Cronkite. She was crying. It's jarring at any time for a child to see a parent in tears. This was also scary.

Not sure what to expect, my approach was tentative. I reached out and touched her arm and when she pulled me toward her I curled into the wing chair beside her, and we watched the television together. My little brothers came and went, my big sister joined us. Conversation was minimal and subdued. My mother stayed in the chair, her damp eyes locked on the black and white images on the screen. What struck me were the things she said. “This was bound to happen.” And, “he never should have gone to Texas.” She blamed Dallas, she blamed Vice President Lyndon Johnson, she blamed every citizen of the state. Only later in life would I develop a context for her perspective.
President Kennedy's casket is placed in the Capitol Rotunda.
The Capitol Rotunda today. Where the velvet ropes are is also where JFK's casket was placed for public viewing.
At home that night, and the next day, we glued ourselves to the TV as a family. The sadness came in small and large waves.

For three years I’d been enchanted with the Kennedy family — JFK, Jackie, Caroline and John-John. JFK loomed large in my life. My father, who was with the Pentagon, would take us to nearby Andrews Air Force Base to watch the president come and go on his trips. Today the image of him remains clear. His hands, either jabbing at his hair or in and out of his suit jacket pockets as he walked. His lankiness. Years later I would have the opportunity to spend some time with John Jr., when he was 35 years old, and the traces of similarity were stunning.
The departure from the Rotunda after an official ceremony.
The immediate impact of JFK’s death for me was an overwhelming need to bear witness, to get closer, to pay my respects in some important way.

The Sunday morning when JFK’s body was moved from the White House to the Capitol I asked my father, “Would you please drive me to Washington and drop me off so that I can see JFK's casket in the Rotunda?” He didn’t argue. He asked my 15-year-old sister to go with me. I didn’t think a chaperone was necessary, but so be it. He dropped us off downtown, where we joined a parade of mourners, quietly walking in the same direction toward Capitol Hill.
The line of mourners waiting for their turn to enter the Rotunda and file by the casket. This started in the afternoon and went through the night until morning.
We merged into a line that had formed at the back of the Capitol, the north side, where a tall bank of steps climbed to the Rotunda. There was a broad expanse of asphalt — a driveway and parking lot — where the caisson of horses and military and the carriage bearing the president’s body were scheduled to arrive from the White House. How we got near to the front of the line I don’t recall, but we were among the first rows of people — back from the steps but still relatively close to the arrival area.

We stood for hours. It was cold. It was uncomfortable. The wait and the discomfort didn't matter. Some people around us had transistor radios. That’s how we learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot in a Dallas jail. The news spread fast by word of mouth. It added more layers of craziness, confusion and fear. Dallas, Texas, seemed to be the most dangerous place in the world.
The long stretch where mourners lined up to enter the Rotunda and pay their respects to JFK.
It's probably not the same lamp post, but it is in the same spot as it was in November 1963. From the top it provided a good view of the ceremony bringing JFK's casket to the Rotunda for public viewing.
When the caravan arrived the crowd stood taller. I couldn't see over the grown-ups. I looked up at a light post, saw opportunity and decided to go for it. I grabbed the metal pole and inched up. It was cold against the wool of my trousers. My muscles clenched, my hands in mittens held tight to the posts that stuck out of either side of the light. My sister’s voice from below: “I can't believe you’re up there. Be careful.” It wasn’t exactly comfortable but I had a great view. I could see Jackie, shrouded in black. I could see Bobby and Teddy. I saw other family members and little John-John and Caroline in blue coats. And then I saw the flag draped coffin.

This lamp post, or one just like it, is what I climbed up to watch Jackie Kennedy follow her husband's casket into the Capitol Rotunda.
Soldiers in uniforms bore the casket up the steps and the family followed. Inside, a formal ceremony was broadcast to the world, including the tender moment when Jackie took Caroline up to the casket.  Outside, we froze patiently.

When it was the public’s turn, after the official ceremonies ended, and the Kennedys and a crowd of dignitaries departed, and the afternoon sun was soon to set, the line came to attention in an orderly fashion. Slowly we moved across the wide parking area and driveway and climbed the steps to the Rotunda. The big door at the top offered warmth.

The first sight that caught my attention in the vast room were the lights and the bulky TV cameras behind them. The brightness was disorienting, almost blinding, but after my eyes adjusted they were drawn in one direction: to the casket. It was my first visit to the Capitol and my first time in a room with a casket.

The experience was an emotional deluge; the overall scene plus knowing that in the casket was the body of a man I adored, who had seemed larger than life, the same man I watched bounding up and down the steps of Air Force One, whose televised press conferences captivated me, whose images beside Jackie were something out of Hollywood. He was in a box under that flag? Dead? How could that be?
The public, passing by the casket.
Because ushers kept us moving I kept my composure. Still, I didn’t know what to do with my moment abreast of the casket, how to formally pay respects. We were Episcopalian, we didn’t overtly act out our faith, but just staring didn’t seem quite enough. No one talked. Some people cried. In front of me a woman stopped and turned, paused for a beat and made the Stations of the Cross. When she moved on I thought about it for a moment and then copied her exactly. It felt right.

The walk through the Rotunda went by quickly. We were ushered toward the door, out of the bright lights and back into the dusk and cold. My sister and I were tired, hungry, bewildered. We walked for blocks. My father dutifully met us at a prearranged location downtown. There was little talk in the car during the long drive home along the Potomac River.
Inside the Rotunda.
The door through which we entered the Rotunda, which is now closed to the public.
The Monday of the funeral I stayed shut inside my bedroom, watching a small TV that had rabbit ears. I cried in my pillow as the ceremonies moved from St. Matthews Cathedral, where John-John saluted his father, to Arlington Cemetery, where Jackie lit the Eternal Flame.

A few years earlier, when I was 10, I wrote a letter to President Kennedy, begging him not to go to war with the Russians, to please keep us safe. This sad Monday I was moved to write another letter, this one to Mrs. Kennedy. In my school cursive I told her how sorry I was for her and her children and how much I loved the president. I hoped she wouldn’t be sad for too long.

I folded the letter carefully, addressed the envelope with her name and “The White House, Washington, DC” and put it in the mailbox.
St. Matthews Cathedral today. It is where the Requiem Mass was held for JFK. Inside St. Matthews. Jackie Kennedy sat in the front pew on the right.
The steps of St. Matthews Cathedral, where John Kennedy, Jr., saluted his father's casket.
The next day we went back to our routines, and back to a world forever changed. By the time I graduated from high school in 1968 we were at war, classmates were being drafted and some killed, and both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy also had been assassinated.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt