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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

PHALON’S FILE: Remembering JFK on That Day

Walter Cronkite telling the world President Kennedy was dead. Photo: CBS Archive.

One the first, if not the first, news stories I can remember unfolding in real time is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This week will mark the 60th anniversary of that event.

In the intervening years, I’ve watched as the Kennedy assassination has passed through the three basic levels of history: things occurred (1) last week, (2) a long time ago or (3) a really long time ago like when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Basically, anything that happened before a person was born can pretty much be categorized as option three, the dinosaur level. And I suppose to most post-Boomers, the JFK history is, indeed, ancient history.

But if you were there to see it, you probably have a different perspective.

Even today, the events of September 11, 2001, to me and I’m sure many, many others, seem to fall into the “last week” option, because it still seems like it happened last week. At the same time, there are many Millennials reaching adulthood who weren’t yet born on that day.

To them, I imagine, September 11 takes on a level of abstraction. They didn’t see the story unfold in real time. They did not hear the first reports of a small plane accidently colliding with the North Tower and then the horror of what the crash of the second plane meant.

Though I was 4 years old on November 22, 1963, I had basic awareness of who President Kennedy was. Everybody seemed to like him.

My vague memories of that day began with our neighbor at our back door around lunchtime. She looked upset and told my mother she heard on the radio there was a shooting at the president’s motorcade but knew no more than that.

I, of course, knew very little about what this all meant, but I do remember vividly when Walter Cronkite announced in CBS: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Time, some 38 minutes ago.” He paused for a moment, wiped his eyes then collected himself, realizing what would be expected from The Most Trusted Man in America in the next few days.

That memory I’m sure is conflated with many subsequent viewings of that moment, but I do vividly remember my mother and our neighbor suddenly sobbing. Then everything got weird.

The TV, the core and babysitter of most suburban homes in the early 60s, abruptly shifted to men in suits and ties instead of cartoons and Captain Kangaroo. There were no 24-hour news channels then, so extensive coverage of the events took place on the major networks, much like it did during the days after September 11.

My father brought my brother and me for haircuts at Nick Zisa’s barbershop in Pequannock during what became known as The Four Days between the assassination and the funeral, and one of the few times he was actually home from work during the day as the world came to a brief standstill.

The big TV with the little screen in the barbershop was tuned to the coverage of the unfolding events, and I remember seeing grown men openly weeping, something one did not see in 1963.

An unnerving quiet settled in as the late president’s funeral commenced. I could see no cars on the streets. No sound from the nearby highway. Nobody on the sidewalks. A couple mornings later, my mother told me Captain Kangaroo was back, and all seemed right with the world.

But a sense of the earlier normalcy never fully returned. At 4 years old, I didn’t quite grasp the full meaning of what happened, but even then, I seemed to realize it was a society-altering event.

The next September, when I started kindergarten in Hillview School, our teacher Mrs. Lang hung up a picture of the slain president and explained who he was and what happened.

Adding a bit of confusion to the mix, our building custodian’s name was Mr. Kennedy, and Mrs. Lang bore an uncanny resemblance to Jacqueline Kennedy, but I think I got it all straight.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.