Tom Ross: Vivid memories from a grim November weekend 50 years ago never will fade
November 21, 2013
Steamboat Springs — When the news broke that JFK had been shot in Dallas, my fifth-grade classmates and I at Charles R. Van Hise Elementary School were lined up waiting to re-enter the building after our lunch period.
I have a recollection that our immediate reaction was inappropriate — we did not burst out in tears but let out a collective holler. Looking back from an adult perspective, I can surmise that we just weren't prepared to absorb the traumatic news.
Within minutes, we were seated in our desks and our teacher, Mrs. Gould, had rolled a black-and-white television set into the room. We spent the rest of the day watching Walter Cronkite guide a nation through the grim news reports.
I was only 9 at the time, and if you are much younger than I am, your memories of that day and the weekend that followed might not be detailed.
Here's what I remember most:
My parents were visibly upset by the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and for me and my sisters, the weekend that followed the shooting was doubly miserable.
My father had been in the midst of remodeling our basement, and when he went to lay down new vinyl floor tiles, he spread out too much adhesive on the concrete floor. Not realizing his mistake, he laid all of the tiles, dozens and dozens of them. They stuck to the floor, but the adhesive never set properly, and when we walked on our new floor, sticky black goo oozed out of the cracks in the tiles.
So we spent the weekend after the president was shot on our hands and knees, scrubbing the black adhesive away with some kind of nasty solvent.
I know that sounds terribly mundane, given the circumstances. But if I were to attempt to describe in a novel all of that scrubbing we endured that awful weekend, it might be as a desperate act of self-cleansing that was destined to fail. Have any of us fully gotten over that sunny day in Dallas?
If we had, we might have stopped debating conspiracy theories by now.
Although I was a young child, President Kennedy had captivated me with his endorsement of the space program. I was in third grade in February 1962 when John Glenn orbited the earth three times in Friendship 7. I compiled a five-page booklet illustrated with my own drawings, a postage stamp and a few newspaper clippings from the Wisconsin State Journal, including one of the president paying tribute to Glenn outside the White House.
President Kennedy, tapping into a fear that the Russians might win the space race, had vowed before Congress on May 25, 1961, to put a man on the moon. In so doing, he galvanized the nation, including little children, into a common goal that seemed audacious. At the same time, Kennedy's bold promise reaffirmed our collective faith that we could do what other nations could not.
There are moments in human history that have such a personal impact on us that the details and emotions of the day stay with us even a half-century later. The attack on Pearl Harbor, V-J Day, space shuttle disasters and certainly 9-11 are touchstones and, some would say, even tipping points for overlapping generations.
For me, it was the violent death of a president that triggered the inevitable loss of innocence that sets us all on the gradual path to adulthood.
Where were you when JFK was shot?
Steamboat resident Art Judson, who turned 80 this fall, has this recollection of how he heard of JFK's death while working on Berthoud Pass:
I was a snow ranger at Berthoud Pass, splicing cables for the weather instruments at the time. I came off the mountain and into the snow ranger’s shack at the pass and was hooking up the wind recorder when the news came over the radio.
My boss, snow ranger Dick Stillman, said: “That’s one of the Kennedy boys.” And then I paid attention. I drove down the mountain and stopped to watch it on TV at a coffee shop in Empire. I was devastated. Then I drove home to (my wife) Milly in Fort Collins."
— Art Judson