I was 17 years old, away from home for the first time in my life, just beginning to settle in to the start of my freshman year at St. Bonaventure. It was a gorgeous, clear, chilly fall Friday afternoon, a few days before the Thanksgiving break; the leaves were mostly gone, but the sky was an astonishing deep blue and little clouds were flying by on a cold wind.
We were in Prof. Leo Keenan's English lit class in Plassmann Hall, and just getting ready to leave at the end of the hour, when Jack Garner, one of our classmates, came to the door looking ashen-faced and told us and the prof that the President had just been shot. I remember scoffing, oh no, that can't be true, and Jack just shrugged helplessly. Uncle Leo, as we called him, said no word but strode away in silence, headed for the AP ticker tape in the journalism classroom.
A bunch of my fellow coeds and I all streamed back across the road to our dorm on the hill, St. Elizabeth's Hall, desperate to see it on TV. Classes seemed somehow to be magically canceled, because I don't recall going to another that day.
Though I do have a memory of watching the campus flag being lowered to half-staff...but I can't put it in context, so maybe that came later.
We got there in time to see Walter Cronkite announce the stunning news, and we all started crying. I remember, later that afternoon, a single beam of sunlight coming out from behind a gold-rimmed cloud just above the mountains and striking into the rec room like an arrow, falling on our faces like a touch from the beyond.
We didn't stop crying or watching TV for the next four days, except to attend the solemn requiem High Mass, held in Butler Gym, timed so as not to conflict with the funeral Mass being held in Washington DC.
Girls weren't allowed on the main floor, so we watched from the balcony of the indoor running track; I remember how hard it was to stand on the slanted track floor even in the low French heels I had on, but I had a perfect view of the ceremony below. Every coed who could was wearing black; I was in a nice black boucle' wool A-line coat, and a black lace mantilla which I was later to put to similar use in Paris, July 1971...
It was like something out of the Middle Ages: robed friars, priests in black vestments processing to a central altar, the tall tapers, the male seminary choir chanting "Dies Irae", magnificent and chilling. And oddly comforting. One of the supreme spiritual moments of my life, no question. I knew I would remember it forever.
There was nothing but assassination coverage on TV: no programs, no commercials. It was all black and white: not that it mattered, but I was startled when I saw the first color pictures from Dallas---how pink Mrs. Kennedy's suit was, how brown-red her hair.
Every coed in the dorm gathered in the third-floor rec room---glued to the only TV set we had---and I can still hear the indrawn half moan, half hiss of breath, as if we'd all been struck in the face, that ran around the room at the first sight of Jackie in the doorway of the plane, hand in hand with Bobby, blood all over her skirt. Everybody almost collapsed in grief and sympathy; we held each other up as best we could.
But a lot of people with cars had jumped into them as soon as they could, cramming the cars with anyone who wanted to go along, and headed south to DC, to stand in line outside the Capitol to pay respects and to watch the cortege head to Arlington on Monday.
The rest of us who stayed were in total shock: I remember watching TV numbly on I guess it was Sunday night (having earlier seen the assassin shot point-blank live). Some symphony was playing the "Eroica" funeral movement, and the announcer was commenting in a hushed voice that on his Berlin trip, the Germans had called JFK a young Siegfried; tears were silently streaming down everybody's faces. We just stayed as close as we could to comfort ourselves; the more religious among us spent hours in the dorm chapel.
I even wandered up the hill behind the dorm to a little grotto in a grove of trees, a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes (which is still there, although the dorm is gone, and I visited it when I was back on campus 2 years ago), just sitting there, not praying, not even thinking; a nun came walking by, on the same errand, trying to find some peace or calm, but we didn't say anything to each other.
By Monday---the Mass and interment and the eternal flame and the whole thing---we were exhausted.
But we still couldn't stop watching. Sometimes it feels as if we never did.