50-Year Anniversary of JFK’s Death: We Remember

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I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened this morning: I checked the Facebook page of my friend, John Balma, saw the beautiful photograph of President Kennedy that he had posted, and burst into tears.

Autographed JFK photo for the late Sheriff John Balma Sr. of Redding. Photo courtesy of John Balma Jr.

I posted this comment in response to the photo, signed by President Kennedy, for John’s father, Sheriff Balma:

Dad had one of these, too, which he kept on his office wall until he had no further need for an office. I remember that day in 1963 so vividly. My mother dropped the bowl of blueberry muffins she was mixing, my afternoon programs went off the air, and my father raced home from work. I could not figure out why they were crying. Thanks for posting this, John.

On November 22, 1963, I was newly 4 years old, home with Mama in our house across from Pine Street School that my sisters and I still call The Yellow House. I was bored, wondering how much longer until my big sisters would blow through the front door bubbling over with exotic tales of tetherball and hot dog day. Mine was a typical youngest child’s existence: home with Mama, avoiding all but the most delightful domestic chores (such as ironing Daddy’s hankies), waiting. Always waiting, for the girls to return from school, for the real action of the day to begin.

Mama was in the kitchen, listening to the radio, busying herself with whatever mothers did in the kitchen. Then the crash, heavy and wet, the sound of a large Pyrex mixing bowl containing blueberry muffin batter (Mama’s signature, and only, “dish”) hitting the kitchen linoleum, followed by a wail from my mother. I flew into the kitchen, worried, scared, a little excited, to find my mother, hands on hips, staring down at the epicenter of the mess on the floor, weeping in an unfamiliar way.

At that point, I was simply afraid. I tried to comfort Mama, but she was inconsolable, barely aware of my presence, it was like every sadness she had ever felt had returned, all at once. She snapped out of her despair long enough to tell me without her usual cautionary enthusiasm to watch out for the broken glass, and the next thing I knew, Dad came through our front door with uncharacteristic urgency, strode straight into the kitchen, rain coat flapping, grabbed my mother by the shoulders and pulled her to him without speaking. They cried into one another for what seemed like a very long time.

It felt private and adult, so I slipped out into the living room to turn on the TV, something I ordinarily would never do without permission. But my shows were not on. No “Real McCoys”, nothing but endless, sad, black-and- white news. I believe it was Walter Cronkite, but it might have been Huntley or Brinkley, who told me what had turned the world upside down, why my parents were holding onto each other as if they might drown, and why they didn’t seem to mind standing in the middle of broken muffin batter.

I was saved from my confusion by my three sisters’ return from school. I remember the look of stunned bewilderment on each flushed face, which I adopted, since I looked to my older, wiser sisters to show me what I should be feeling about all things.

At some point Mama composed herself sufficiently to announce that she would never make blueberry muffins again. My father stayed home with us all day and night, very unusual behavior on his part. My sisters and I spoke in hushed tones, and my parents were mostly silent, stunned, seemed to stay in front of our black-and-white RCA around the clock, not engaging in their usual, spirited news-watching banter.

There would be other awful days for our American family, of course: Dr. King on April 4, 1968, Bobby Kennedy on June 6, 1968, and my own mother in March of the following year. By the time of Bobby’s assassination my parents had divorced, my mother, sisters and I had moved a few times, following the sharp, downward trajectory that often follows divorce.

The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 changed everything — in my family, and in the world. I cannot think of another event that had – and continues to have – a greater impact on the spirit and psyche of all Americans.

Public domain photo courtesy of the Mary Ferrell Foundation.

Note: Below are comments posted on sister Doni Chamberlain’s Facebook page regarding her post about JFK’s death.

Doni Chamberlain: The 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder: Miss King’s second grade class at Pine St. School. A message came over the intercom that the president was dead. It didn’t really sink in until my sisters and I walked home from school to our East St. house to find our mother crying. She said she’d been making blueberry muffins when she heard the news. (That was her last muffin-making event.) I think that for Redding kids, many of whom were like me and my sisters, who’d been out to the Whiskeytown dedication and saw Kennedy in person, it felt more personal.

Lee Riggs of Anderson: Two days I always will remember: 9/11 and today. We were loading supplies on my ship getting ready for a shakedown cruise to Gitmo when someone announced the president has been shot. It was hard to believe, then a period of sadness and feeling disoriented followed and it seemed the same for everyone on the base that day.  I saw Kennedy several times, but the most memorable was a speech he gave off the back end of a train at Red Bluff, just like you see in the movies. The last time we will ever see that.

Rose Marie Bass of Redding: I was in the dentist office and  the nurse stepped in and said our president is dead, , everyone cried  everywhere I went.. such a sad sad day.  and we all have missed him  ALL these years, he was the best!!

Todd Acker, from Redding, lives in Charleston, Illinois:  I remember Mrs. King telling us, and how quiet the school was that afternoon.

Dan Kupsky of Redding: I was in my 7th period Gym class freshmen year! We were told there was a shooting and to go play softball. After class we learned the sad result. Never forget that long quiet bus ride home with girls quietly crying. Our world had changed!!!

Linda Porterfield-Jones, from Redding, lives in Apollo Beach, Florida:  Yes, Doni, I think those of us in Redding who were fortunate enough to see him in person felt it to be more personal.  I know to this day I still shed a tear for his death.  I, too, feel that this country lost its innocence and changed the political environment.  I often wonder what it would be like had we not lost both of them.

Misha Griffith, from Redding, lives in Washington, D.CI was only three, but I remember my mom crying. We had been out to the airport to see the helicopters and all when President Kennedy went to Whiskeytown, and my mom saw Kennedy and she always remarked at how blue his eyes were.  I remember sitting with mom as we watched the funeral. Now that I live near Washington DC, I always get a cold chill when I see the Memorial Bridge which leads to Arlington Cemetery.

Gayle Schipper of Redding:  I was a young mama, at home with my children.  I can still see my 2 month old son, lying on a yellow blanket on the floor in front of the stereo.  Yes, for some reason I remember it was yellow.  My little girl was 3, almost the same age as John-John. As I watched that little boy saluting at the funeral procession, my heart just went out to him.

Shelly Shively of Redding: As a second-grader, it was unsettling to see all the adults in a state of sadness, shock & fear: something very bad had happened.  I remember wondering, as we solemnly walked home, whether the bombs were coming, given the school drills in duck & cover. Coming home to a distraught mother did not quell the anxiety of doom.
9/11 stirred-up that experience in familiarity.

Mary Alice Chester Raabe of Sparks, Nevada: My mom and dad had been on the welcoming committee at the airport. My mom was at the end of the receiving line and after she shook  the President’s hand there was a pause and, being the fun loving person she was, she said “That was fun, lets do it again” and they shook again. It was hot and she had gloves on and she hadn’t been able to get them off…I bet those gloves are in a drawer somewhere here.

Jon Lewis of Redding: I was 7, a second-grader at Greendell Elementary in Palo Alto, and was out playing tetherball when our teacher came out and told us President Kennedy had been shot. The enormity of the situation was a little beyond me but I definitely sensed how distraught the teacher was. Funny how time changes things, but the details that stand out for me are how powerful those black-and-white TV images were, Lyndon Johnson’s hangdog jowls and ears and Walter Cronkite’s eyeglass frames. Just listened to ‘Fresh Air’ on NPR and an interview with the author of “A Cruel and Shocking Act.” Highly recommend it. Audio available at 2 pm Pacific.  http://www.npr.org/…/botched-investigation-fuels… It airs on JPR (89.7 FM) at 3 and repeats on KFPR/KCHO (88.9) at 7 tonight.

Margaret Crandell: I was 13 or 14 at the time, and worked during Thangsgiving break at a small exclusive restaurant, my job was to wash the fine china one piece at a time by hand. It was noonish when we heard over the radio, “We interrupt this program to bring you some special news; the president of the united states has been shot.” Wow, that hit like a ton of bricks. One by one all reservations canceled. We were told to leave for the day. At home , I told my family about it and the TV was instantly on capturing all the moments you see of the motorcade in the news clippings. I remember this like it was yesterday…

Readers who remember that day, we welcome your recollections.

bethanyBethany Chamberlain is a Bay Area marketing consultant, writer, beekeeper and animal-lover.

Bethany Chamberlain grew up in Redding and currently lives in Humboldt County.
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