NORMAN — Editor’s note: This column was first published in The Transcript in 1999.
The first grade class at St. Joseph’s Catholic School knew immediately something was very wrong that November day in 1963. Sr. Doris didn’t interrupt spelling drills for just any announcement. School would be dismissed early, she said in a terse voice. Your parents have been notified.
Mom was crying when she met us at the front door. “President Kennedy is dead,” she told her brood, trying to stay strong. “Someone shot him at a parade in Dallas.”
Every time school let out early after that, I was sure someone important had died.
Most remember where they were and who they were with when they learned of mournful events — the death of a loved one, a spectacular news story or a celebrity’s passing.
The past week’s search for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law brought back such memories for many of us. A clerk in a store last Saturday asked a customer behind me the latest on the Kennedy plane. It was the first I heard of the tragedy. “It doesn’t look good,” she said, proceeding to explain what had happened to all within earshot.
The memory bank is clogged with thoughts on the death of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, John Wayne and Foreman Scotty. The crashes of the Space Shuttle, and Penn Square Bank, the painfully slow end to the Vietnam War and the instantaneous end to the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.
My family — with three sons nearing draft age rejoiced in 1973 when Walter Cronkite told us the long war in Vietnam was over. Dad lit his pipe and threw the match in an entire box of fireworks he had stored in the garage for just such an occasion.
My shift on The Daily Oklahoman copy desk had just ended when Roger Dale Stafford went on a murder spree at a south Oklahoma City steakhouse in 1978. A brother worked at the Norman affiliate of the same steakhouse. Sunning on a Mexican beach in 1982, we read the Spanish headlines about the fall of Penn Square Bank and wondered whether our round-trip airline tickets could be converted to one-way. Cancun was not a bad place to hide out until the credit card ran out. Oklahoma’s economy rode the oil boom like a rocket that would never land.
The student takeover of the American Embassy in Iran will be a part of my memory bank. A first cousin was the embassy’s political officer.
He and his wife ran out the back door and hid in the Canadian ambassador’s closet until fake passports could be arranged to get them out of the country.
When John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in Washington in 1981 my Oklahoma City Times city editor Kay Dyer sent me to church downtown. My assignment: Interview folks who went there to pray for the president. Same assignment and same church for the pope when a gunman fired at him.
The bomb in downtown Oklahoma City blew away the nation’s innocence and turned the world upside down. We checked on our loved ones, found the kids and hugged them, and then somehow tried to make sense of it all.