A Universal Gasp

john f kennedyAwash in adrenaline, my heart beat like an out of control train, and my stomach seized into itself. I sat stiffly in the molded plastic chair on the stage of my high school in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. Though there were two rows of us about to be inducted into the National Honor Society, I felt totally alone as my thoughts careened recklessly, trying to make sense of things.

I looked out across the cafeteria, now a massive rectangle of faces, divided by an aisle in the middle. Tension electrified the air as we all tried to comprehend the incomprehensible: our beloved President Kennedy had just been shot. In the moments preceding the assembly, the intercom had interrupted our classrooms with the stunning news. We knew the President had been rushed to the hospital. We wondered: would he survive? In the unfolding life and death drama, we were desperate for more news, yet we also feared what it might be.

The National Honor Society ceremony began. But how could we focus on it when our sense of reality had been catapulted into a confused state? The bullet in Dallas had shattered our sense of a safe America and left us in a wounded state of disbelief. How was our President? Rumors were that his death had been announced on the radio. Was that true? Or just a rumor?

After the names of the new members were announced, our school principal, Mr. Hernick, approached the microphone. There was a hesitancy in his usually brisk stride, and his head was bent with a downward gaze. He told us that he had decided to skip his speech. Then, seeming to gather up his nerve, he looked straight out into the room and tersely uttered the words we had hoped we would never hear: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States is dead.”

A primal reaction occurred. The oxygen was sucked out of the room as hundreds of people inhaled simultaneously in a universal gasp. The gasp united us in that uniquely terrible moment in time.

We students left the stage and began the traditional closing ceremony. In single file, we walked down the aisle with muffled sobbing surrounding us. We each carried a lit candle. The words from the song “One Little Candle” blanketed the room, as we tried to sing along in broken voices. Yes, it was better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark, but our wavering flames now seemed somehow very vulnerable. Our young and vibrant President had lit more than a little candle—he had lit a torch of enthusiasm among young people for making our country a better country and the world a better place. And now he was dead.

We thought only of our President as we glanced through blurry eyes at our candles. We thought only of him as the inspiring lyrics permeated the air and our souls. The procession of little flames and the uplifting words were a tribute to President Kennedy, our fallen leader. In our hearts, we were honoring him in our accidental memorial service, perhaps the first in the nation.

Unknown to us at the time, our little candles of hope and courage symbolized what the President’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, also saw as a fitting tribute to her husband. At his gravesite a few days later, her calm dignity helped steady a nation as she lit an eternal flame in honor of her husband and his lofty vision of a better America.

Now, fifty years later, the flame is still aglow, shimmering with a steadfast hope and illuminating our long-ago memories in the darkened shadows of our country’s history.

Carol Weedman Reed
October 2013

Carol Weedman Reed moved from her childhood home in Maryland to attend college in Wyoming, which was just the beginning of her far and wide travel adventures throughout the western part of the U.S. She loves her family, nature and cooking which is reflected in her book, Friends in My Kitchen. Carol is an ovarian cancer survivor and all proceeds from Friends in My Kitchen go to ovarian cancer research.

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