NORWALK, Conn. – Nov. 22, 1963. I was sitting at my desk in Mrs. Martell’s fifth-grade classroom at Hyannis West Elementary School on Cape Cod. It was a new school, opened in September for the kids from the west end of Hyannis, West Hyannis Port and Hyannis Port.
I lived in Hyannis Port. Not the rich part. Not even the well-off part. I always joke that I lived in the slums of Hyannis Port, which consisted of my house. But it really isn’t a joke. It was only about a mile from the richest homes in the village, but it was tiny, a three-bedroom home with less than 1,000 square feet, a pantry kitchen and eat-in living room. How small was it? When my grandmother moved into an elderly housing complex in Worcester, we got her refrigerator. It was our first full-size fridge and we had to put it in the living room.
The house sat on a hill, hidden behind a summer cottage and catty corner to a larger home that belonged to Jack Bell. Jack was our plumber. He was also the Kennedy family’s plumber. And next to him was his brother, Austin Bell, our milkman who moonlighted as a gardener at the Kennedy Compound.
We didn’t mix much with the Hyannis Port crowd. Oh, we went to the beach, the post office, the penny candy store. Mostly we walked, because, until 1964, my mother didn’t have her license and my father worked a lot. So we’d walk to the beach when I was little, and stop and talk with some people along the way, but mostly we just kept to ourselves.
The Kennedy kids were much too wild for me. I came from a conservative family. My parents were registered Independent, but they were conservative and voted Republican. They did not like the Kennedy family for many reasons, politics being the least of them. I still remember my sister, who was 12 years my senior, telling me that, if Jack Kennedy was elected president, there would be a war. I was 7 years old, and when November rolled around, I was petrified.
Mrs. Martell was in the middle of a lesson when Mr. Berry, our principal, came on the public address system and announced to the school that the president had been shot, and school would be dismissed early. Buses were on the way, he said.
We were stunned. I didn’t know how to react. Some of the kids cried, some talked, others were excited about getting out of school early.
My school bus was the one that looped through Hyannis Port, by the beach and the post office, a block from the compound, before heading up Scudder Avenue, down the hill past the Old Harbor Candle Factory and the one-truck fire station and to my house. When we stopped to let kids off at the post office, there were a lot of people on the street, talking, hugging. When I got home minutes later, my mother had the TV on, and I heard the news – the president was dead.
The ill feelings about the Kennedy family seemed to recede into the background. We watched TV for the next few days, non-stop news, including the funeral procession. It was surreal. The president was dead. His assassin was shot on live TV. Jack Ruby became a household name.
It was a lot for a 10-year-old to process. All I can remember now is that it marked the beginning of my political awareness and the end of a more innocent time.
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