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MurphTheSurf3 On November - 22 - 2013


I went to school in England for four years as a kid. My dad was a U.S. Navy officer assigned to work with the British Navy in the United Kingdom in setting up a U.S. style Naval Reserve.

My mother was quite ill.

So,  I got sent off to a Boarding School and it was a wonderful experience. It made me the student I still am today.

I was in my second year there and in Evening Prep (Study Hall after Supper) when one of the Prefects came to the door and asked that I and two other students in the room report to the Headmaster right away. In many British Public Schools (oddly that term actually means Private School in the UK), such an announcement would lead to fear and trembling but at my school our Headmaster was very much respected and loved AND trusted. If he wanted us, there must be a good reason.

As we crossed the Yard to the Headmaster’s House a number of others were also crossing the yard. What we all had in common is that we were all “Yanks” from across “The Pond”.

There were 50 or so Americans in the school from age 12 to 18 and we were all gathered in the large hall outside of the Headmaster’s Study. He came out of his office, and walked part way up the stairway that led to his family’s residence. He turned to face us and there were tears in his eyes. It was a bit of a shock. Headmasters were supposed to be “steady” and our man was clearly shaken.

His words were these: “Young men of America, I have the sad duty to inform you that your President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead. He was struck down by an assassin’s bullet earlier today. I am so sorry. The entire school joins you in mourning the loss of this great man. We shall have a moment of silence and then join as one in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”

I was pretty young but like a number of others in the room the son of a military man and that plus the obvious upset of my fellow Americans in the upper forms (older grades) seemed to give me and my friends permission to cry. British schools encouraged their students to “get on with it with a stiff upper lip” but there was to be none of that that day. As we finished the words of the Lord’s Prayer (For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are Yours Now and Forever), one of the 6th Form (Senior) American students began to sing….“Oh Say Can You See by the dawn’s early light….” We all joined in.

One of the most powerful moments in my young life.

Postscript: We all grow up. Part of my growing up was coming to grips with how flawed JFK was as a man, and as a leader. Still the moment of his death is in and of itself a touchstone for those in my generation who regarded it as that time when the sense of hope in America’s future that JFK’s “Camelot” seemed to capture suffered a mortal blow.

Categories: History, News & Politics

Written by MurphTheSurf3

Proud to be an Independent Progressive. I am a progressive- a one time Eisenhower Republican who is now a Democrat. I live in a very RED STATE and am a community activist with a very BLUE AGENDA. Historian, and "Gentleman Farmer."

16 Responses so far.

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  1. What a day, huh Murph? One of the darkest days for America and the free world.

    I was pretty young then, only nine years old. I was in elementary school but I still remember that day vividly. We were sent home after learning the news. I can still visualize the school stairs as I was walking down them. I don’t know why those stairs are etched in my memory, but they certainly are. maybe because my head was down in sorrow.

    When I got home, I soon went out again, to the woods behind our house, a place I used to love to explore. A place that seemed so large in a young boy’s mind. I remember sitting on a rock, by a stream, all by myself, with such a sadness rarely experienced since then. I was too young to even begin to understand the magnitude of what had just happened, but I knew it was very, very bad. A large part of my childhood vanished that day.

    Like most people in those horrible days after, we were all glued to the television. On that Sunday after the assassination, I was watching as Oswald was being led through the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, and saw Ruby shoot Oswald, on live tv. A real life murder on live television. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. The insanity of the assassination just increased beyond all proportion.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:


      I have started using this phrase in the last day or so:

      JFK became more in death than he was in life
      -- a short life but it carries a very long memory.

      Your discussion of the persistence of visual and auditory memory connected to the events of the days after Dallas rings true for me as well.

      Not only can I vividly recall the events in the hallway outside the Head’s office and I can also recall my call home the next morning, the train ride back to Portsmouth for a long weekend with my family (also the Headmaster’s idea) and how alone I felt- without really knowing why-. I recall the train station news stands were every newspaper had the assassination as its headline. I had to wait a while for my dad to arrive so I had some fish and chips. I was dressed in uniform (very distinctive they were too) and when I spoke gave away my American origins. Another customer, a woman in a very tall hat with feathers, turned and looked at me. She said something to a the vendor and then paid for my food. She said: “That’s alright dear….you have had a hard day have you not?” And then she gave me a hug. It was all odd. I was thirteen and of average size for that age. I was definitely too old to have a random lady pay for my food and hug me like I was some lost 8 year old. Still…..I did not say “no, I’ll pay” or pull away when she embraced me….somehow I knew she meant well, very well, and that this was her way of joining me in my sorrow.

  2. SallyT says:

    Murph, if you were of a certain age in 1963, that day still rings close in your mind and heart. I was in the 8th grade and my best friend and I were in the Nurse’s office listening to the radio. (It wasn’t a day that the Nurse was to be there. She came like once a week or so. She attended several schools.) It was after lunch and we went there to listening to music but there was a break in with the news that the President had been shot. We ran to our class room and everyone was gathering. The principal came across the intercom and said that the President had died. There was a loud gasp and we all started talking. Now my teacher wasn’t like yours, she wasn’t calm. She shouted at us to sit down and shut up. She was shaking. The principal dismissed all of us and told us to go home to our families. I don’t remember walking home but I do remember walking into the house and Mom sitting there in front of the TV crying. She looked at me and asked if I had heard. I said yes and sit down with her. I don’t remember Mom and I leaving that TV for 3 days. I still have my scrapbook from that time with articles I cut from the paper and the Life magazines.

    All Presidents have their flaws and history records them. But, history records the good along with the bad. We aren’t prefect and neither are Presidents. But, President Kennedy was different from those we had known up to that time in our life. Young, handsome, humorous, with a beautiful wife and young family and trying to make a difference. He was cut down in front of us, not with votes but with a mail order gun. We still haven’t learned from that where guns are concerned. We lost much that day in our lives.

    We were young, innocent and idealistic. I morn that lost, not for me alone but for all those that have come after that horrific act of violence. Attitudes have changed.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I hope you don’t mind that I shared mine.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:

      JFK became more in death than he was in life
      -- a short life but it carries a very long memory.

      AND I thank you for your thoughts. Different memories in many ways but the common core- they endure and with power.

      • SallyT says:

        I think that is true of most famous or notable people. They become bigger after death. Except maybe for Hitler…… Anyway, if you did not care for them while they were alive, you most likely won’t even after. My feelings on President Reagan. Although, I can find somethings to compliment him on if I try…….he had a sense of humor.

        • MurphTheSurf3 says:

          I think so. JFK has come to be an icon of pure liberal principle and RR has come to be an icon of pure conservative principle….neither is true but both are widely embraced….

    • SallyT says:

      One more thing, sorry Murph, but the portrait that Jackie Kennedy chose to hang in the White House, the one you posted, is so wonderful. It was from a photo that had been taken of the President, not exactly, but used as a source. It was a favorite of his. He didn’t know it was taken. He had given a speech, I think in Sept or Oct to a young audience at a college. The young people hadn’t responded to his speech as he had hoped. He had left there and later in the evening had taken a walk along a river in casual clothes. He had stopped and was looking down staring at the water in thought, arms crossed. Someone took his picture. He liked it because it showed that he was vulnerable and needed to be better to reach the people and had much more work to do. He shared this with his wife and Jackie remembered it.

      • MurphTheSurf3 says:

        I did not know that so I went looking for more info. Here is what I found at wiki.

        President John F. Kennedy’s official portrait was painted posthumously by Aaron Shikler by request of Jacqueline Kennedy. It is generally analyzed as a character study. Unlike most presidential portraits, Kennedy’s does not reflect his personality, but instead depicts him as pensive and brooding, with eyes downcast and arms folded, referencing Kennedy’s assassination. Shikler wished not to paint the eyes of a dead man, thus the portrait features JFK with his eyes downcast. Shikler also painted the official White House portraits of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the Kennedy children.

        I have also seen several photos of him in a stance similar to that- staring out the window of the Oval Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, just prior to accepting the nomination for President, in the last moments before his second State of the Union….I think he had a dark side and that is what we see in this portrait.

  3. Nirek says:

    Murph, you and I had similar lives. I was in high school (Balboa High School, Balboa, Panama, CZ.) when President Kennedy was shot. I remember our teachers telling us.
    The school was all American military kids.
    My Dad was a First Sgt. in the Army. When we were all home we were glued to the TV (black and white console) My folks and my younger brother and sister and I watched Walter Cronkite and were stunned.
    Later we saw Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.

    So Murph, we were both in foreign countries 50 years ago. We had similar experiences. Because of our experiences I feel that we have some kind of a bond.

    What a great post you gave us, thanks.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:

      Thank you for sharing this as well.

      The events just roll right out of our memories don’t they? As a navy kid I lived in a dozen homes (not counting temporary quarters) and our home in England is one the two I can recall because I went home for several days to be with my family after the assassination. Again. our headmaster was very enlightened and realized the need. Anyone who wanted to, could go.

  4. kesmarn says:

    Murph, thanks so much for sharing your unique perspective on this historic day. It much have felt a bit unsettling to be out of the country when you received the news. The nation here was so riveted to the television coverage for days after. I imagine it was different in England.

    For youngsters, I think it matters so much who breaks news like this and how it’s done. It sounds as though that aspect of things was handled very well in your case.

    I was in a Catholic school that day, and I have to say that the nuns there were also calm, supportive and reverent. I’ll always remember that.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:

      Your point regarding who bears the news and who breaks it is on the mark. Great insight.

      It would have been difficult to have heard it on my own as well.

      That greeting from Dr. Day: “Young men of America, I have the sad duty to inform you that your President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead.” gathered us as a family and that was precisely the right thing to so. That Sixth Former- a prefect named Farley- capped off the moment by calling us to sing the National Anthem. Many years later it occurred to me that the Anthem fit the moment.

      O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
      What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
      Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
      O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
      And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
      Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
      O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

      I don’t care for the Star Spangled Banner all that much.
      But in moments of crisis it speaks of endurance and of a sense of pride and continuity.

  5. choicelady says:

    Thank you, Murph. This touched me greatly. Thank you for writing so clearly about your extraordinary experience.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:

      So very welcome.

      Another phrase has come to mind:
      JFK became more in death than he was in life
      -- a short life but it carries a very long memory.

  6. agrippa says:

    That was a real shock; and, a national trauma.

    • MurphTheSurf3 says:

      And the ripples continue in the current day….extraordinary. Part of this of course is due to the way in which it was covered. We can, in audio and video recover those moments in an instant.

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