I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade and we lived in Broomall, a suburb of Philadelphia. I had just had my birthday earlier in the month. Troll dolls were all the rage and I had gotten one as a birthday present. I loved my first troll. I still have her. Actually, I still have all of my troll dolls. She has long, pale orange hair, she’s 2 ˝ inches tall with a big grin, a pot belly and the word DAM stamped on her back. They were sold naked and we used to make clothes for them out of fabric scraps. I named her Trolleum. She fit easily in my coat pocket and she went everywhere with me, but not to school. Oh no! We all lived in fear of confiscation. Teachers would snatch away our toys and put them in their bottom desk drawers if they ever appeared in their classrooms. These items were never to be seen again. I didn’t dare take her or any toy to school.
We had just gotten through the first couple of months of 4th grade. We were upstairs now and officially in the upper grades of Worrall Elementary School. Mrs. Stickle was a pleasant teacher but strict. She had high expectations of us. She was an older lady and at the time was probably much younger than I am right now. Unlike my fashionable mother, she wore lace up high heeled black old lady shoes and old lady style dresses which I found ugly but amusing. Teachers as well as us girls back then always wore skirts and dresses to school, never pants. That’s just the way it was. It was much more formal.
A few weeks earlier I had gotten moved up to her advanced reading class and boy was it tough. When that bell rang, we all rushed to the bookshelf to get a dictionary as we would need it to look up those dreaded glossary words. I lived in fear of those weekly glossary tests. Little did I know that we would soon learn a new word that was not in any of our current schoolbooks and never on a glossary test.
There was an air of anticipation in the classroom. I was excited that day. First of all, it was Friday and I had the freedom of the weekend to look forward to. Then next week we only had 3 days of school because of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
Holidays were a big deal in my family. We would go up to Bethlehem, PA for Thanksgiving dinner and visit with my widowed grandmother, Bethlehem Nana, and all of the aunts, uncles and cousins on my father’s side of the family. My grandmother sure could cook and made the best donuts, cookies and pies. She was the classic nana (and she wore old lady dresses and old lady shoes just like Mrs. Stickle), she would knit, crochet, bake, and play bingo. She always baked some extra pie crust for me. I loved plain pie crust and was looking forward to that tasty treat as well as a big turkey and ham dinner since Uncle Walter didn’t like turkey. Then the next day we would travel to Atlantic City to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my mother’s side of the family. This was almost always an overnight stay. Atlantic City Nana and Papa owned a great big turn of the century guesthouse which was in business only during the summer months. The rest of the year us kids had a blast tearing through the 4 stories and many bedrooms of that amazing playground of a house playing hide and seek, leaping up and down all the various staircases, jumping on the beds and in later years, as young teens, sneaking cigarettes on the 4th floor balcony. My cousin Barbara and I were the same age and partners in crime. We were going to have fun playing with our troll dolls next weekend as well as going around the corner to Nate’s Luncheonette where we could purchase the latest Little Dot, Little Lotta, Richie Rich and Archie comic books which Nate always had in stock. I couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving and then, the Holy Grail of all holidays for a kid, Christmas would soon be here. It was a good time to be a child in 1963.
That morning my mother told me she would take me shopping for a much-needed pair of new shoes after school at Lawrence Park Shopping Center near our home. A holiday coming up and new shoes! I was a pretty happy 9-year-old that day. I loved getting new shoes because not only was I getting shiny new shoes, that also meant that I would get the shoebox that they came in. I couldn’t wait to make a dollhouse for Trolleum out of that shoebox. Oh boy!
Our version of technology in school those days were film and overhead projectors and black and white tv sets on wheels with rabbit ear antennas, which the various classrooms would share. In fourth grade we watched programs on channel 12 the educational channel. We watched a history show, French lessons and on Fridays a science show.
We had just settled in to watch the Friday afternoon science show when the broadcast was interrupted by a news bulletin. At that moment Mrs. Stickle and Mrs. Townsend, one of the other fourth grade teachers came rushing into the classroom, switched off the tv and ran out of the room shouting, “Get hers!” meaning the tv that was on in Mrs. Davidson’s classroom across the hall.
We were silent for a moment. Then a loudmouth boy in the back row said, “They dropped the bomb.” Our jaws dropped open in silence. We all looked at each other in fear. The Bay of Pigs incident was recent history but as nine-year-olds we didn’t know too much about it. But we did know about fallout shelters and air raids. A school air raid drill was a recent memory. They had us sit cross legged in the hallway, facing the wall with our hands linked behind our heads and our elbows bent like we were doing a sit up, and have us lean in towards the wall. It seemed like a pretty serious drill to me when we did that. Something pretty serious must have just happened. I wished that Trolleum was in my coat pocket.
Then Mrs. Stickle slowly walked back in to the room. She took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. She was crying. We stared in disbelief. Teachers were tough. They didn’t cry. They weren’t supposed to cry. They made us cry and Mrs. Stickle was pretty good at doing that to me sometimes. What was happening? Then she said, “Oh Boys and Girls, President Kennedy just got shot.” Our jaws dropped in disbelief for the second time in less than 5 minutes. She told us we didn’t have to do any schoolwork for the rest of the day. We were quiet, subdued and well behaved for 9-year-olds. I sat at my desk and drew pictures of I don’t know what for the rest of the school day. At that point we were holding on to any shred of hope that President Kennedy would survive. One of my classmates had a pocket transistor radio with them. They broke the rules, turned it on at low volume and reported to us not too much later that our president had died. Mrs. Stickle sat very quietly at her desk with her head in her hands. Mrs. Davidon was standing in the corner outside her classroom door with her back to us her body shaking as she quietly sobbed. I stared at her in fascination and shock. Mr. Paxon, our principal, was wandering the hallways checking in on everyone and offering quiet words of comfort. School was dismissed at the usual time and I had my usual 25 minute bus ride home.
The big kids on the bus, the fifth and sixth graders, were taunting the first and second graders. The little kids didn’t know what had happened. The big kids told them the president was dead. The little kids called them liars. They argued back and forth. I didn’t say anything. The bus driver finally told them all to be quiet.
When I got home my mother said, “Don’t’ worry Margie, we’re still going to go get your shoes.” We got in the car and as usual the radio was tuned to WIBG our local top 40 rock and roll station. My mother was a big fan of rock and roll and listened to the same radio station that all of us kids listened to. She loved to predict if a new song she had just heard was going to be number one. That day there wasn’t any rock and roll on the radio. No number one song being played. No Ricky Nelson, no 4 Seasons, none of my favorites were being played. My mother said with a sigh in her voice. “They are playing all church music today.” Back then many of our rock and roll stations broadcast church services and church music on Sunday mornings.
We arrived at the shopping center. To me it appeared dark and somber even though it was a sunny day. The stores were practically empty. We were the only ones at the shoe store. I saw the cutest pair of brown and tan ankle boots with trendy triangular red, yellow and green cutouts on the sides. As luck would have it, they had my size. I was small for my age and my feet were so tiny that very often, shoe stores did not have my size (which resulted in endless tears from me) or they would have to sell me the window display as the smallest sizes were always in the window.
Once we got home it was hard to play with my toys and it took me awhile to feel creative enough to make the house for Trolleum. I was transfixed by the history happening around me. None of my tv shows were on. No Friday night Flintstones, no Saturday morning cartoons. No Bugs Bunny. No Loony Tunes. No Merry Melodies, No Top Cat. Just news report after news report from the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite.
They had someone in custody named Lee Harvey Oswald. We heard that he was hiding in the Texas Book Depository when he fired the shots. They had even found the remains of his fried chicken lunch as they gathered evidence. We heard that the governor of Texas, John Connally, had also been shot and had been seriously injured. A Dallas police officer had also been shot and killed. President Johnson was now going to be our president. Upon hearing about this, I asked my mother, “Is he cute?” Kennedy had been quite handsome. Upon seeing our new president, I did not think he was cute. He looked like a stern, mean old man. I felt so sad and a little scared.
My family, especially my father and his side of the family, were staunch Republicans and were not fans of President Kennedy. They had all voted for Nixon and were quite unhappy that Nixon had lost the most recent presidential election. If President Kennedy came on tv they made fun of his policies, his New England accent, and democrats in general. My father had even bought a satirical comedy record album called,” The First Family.” This president who my family disliked and ridiculed was suddenly beloved by all and I was a little confused by that.
My mother had always seemed to like Jackie Kennedy, the first lady, though. Jackie was a striking brunette who dressed in the height of fashion and had beautified the white house. My mother also dressed in the height of fashion and was constantly decorating our home and making it look beautiful, too. My mother admitted to us then that she had voted for Kennedy after all. That Sunday our Philadelphia paper was sending out a special full color insert on the life of John F Kennedy and I was looking forward to seeing that as I was suddenly fascinated about his life. It was suddenly ok to be interested in this president that most people in my family disliked. My mother and I enjoyed looking at the insert together and talking about the life of John F. Kennedy and all that he had accomplished.
We spent most of our Sundays with my cousin Barbara’s family who lived about 10 minutes away in the neighboring suburb of Springfield. This Sunday we were going over to their house.
Now usually Barbara and I would go off and do our thing and her older sister Dottie would hang with my older sister Bonnie but today we didn’t run off to play.
Barbara and I sat on the floor in front of Uncle Phil’s black and white box of a tv. (only the very rich could afford the luxury of a color tv in 1963) The adults were in chairs and sofas around us smoking their many cigarettes. The indoor air was often smoky back then as the adults were oblivious to the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke. Barbara would often show me how to dance and play in the smoke when it was hit by a sunbeam but not today. We just sat with our troll dolls in hand.
We watched transfixed as the man accused of shooting JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, was led through a parking garage. We watched as a man emerged from the shadows. We watched as that man shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead. We watched it happen as it happened. And we watched it again and again and again as the network replayed the footage over and over in slow motion. We were 9 years old and saw a murder happen right in front of our eyes. Our parents did nothing to stop us from seeing as they were taken by surprise as much as we were. We were shocked but not shocked. We were already a bit numb by what had happened 2 days before. To me it was like watching a crime show on tv. It did not seem real. But it was. Hour after hour the television network replayed the scene over and over and over. We were all silent and still. That man that shot Oswald was a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, but his original last name was actually Rubenstein. Upon hearing that my mother commented that she wasn’t going to use Helena Rubenstein cosmetics anymore. I guess she just didn’t want to be reminded of any of this.
Monday was the day of the funeral and a day of mourning for our country. All schools and businesses were shut down. I was happy to have a day off from school, but the reason why saddened me. My father still went to work that day as he was a rising star in a large electrical contracting firm and worked a lot of hours. Monday was laundry and ironing day. My mother had the ironing board set up in front of the tv. We watched the funeral. My mother ironed. I was nearby playing with my troll doll as I watched the procession. I remember the cadence of the drumbeats. Boom Boom Boom, Bum Bum Bum Bum ,Bum Bum, it went on for hours and I could not get that beat out of my head. I saw the rider less horse. I watched as three-year-old little John John Jr. saluted as the hearse carrying his father’s body went by. My older brother came home. He had used my mother’s car that day. He pulled into the garage and showed my mother, “Look what I did.” He had gotten into a minor accident and had smashed the headlight on the driver’s side. I remember staring at the damage and thinking,” So what? What else?”. No one seemed too upset about the car. There were more important things happening in the world that day.
I had recently learned a new word. It was not an easy word to spell or pronounce. It was certainly not a word a 9-year-old should be learning the meaning of. But yet, I did. Assassinate, assassination, assassin, in all of its many forms and tenses. In the coming years that word become almost commonplace as Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would both face a similar fate. Yes, I felt numb, sad, and confused and maybe a little older, a little less innocent. But that was the way it was, and I just moved on with my Troll doll, Trolleum, in my pocket to comfort me.
murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.
"the organization's leader had been assassinated four months before the coup"