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The day sadness came to Heard School

By Walter Geiger Virginia Lord Heard School in Savannah was a safe and happy place. When the weather was good, and it most often was, the boy walked or rode his bike to school. Safety, save for crossing Waters Ave., was not a concern. Children making their way to the school filled the streets. Not so today. The boy was in the school patrol and helped raise the flag each day. Students opened their studies with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. There were clubs, Cub Scouts and a great library. Even the cafeteria food was good except for on fish stick Fridays. We learned because we worked at it. We knew Otha Woodcock, the zen master of sixth grade, would never let us move on to seventh grade if we didn’t know our stuff. Failing a grade was unthinkable. Three months into third grade, the boy had known nothing but happiness at the school. He had not noticed his teacher, Mrs. Brown, slip out of the classroom that fateful day but he did notice when she returned. It was obvious she had been crying. Work stopped. All eyes were trained on Mrs. Brown’s tear-stained face. Then the announcement came over the PA system. President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. He was at a place called Parkland Hospital. The boy and his classmates were stunned. Not long after, the PA crackled again with news the president had died. The boy learned a new word: assassinated. We were used to marching to bomb shelters and Cuban Missile Crisis nuclear attack drills because of the large military presence in Savannah but this stunned us. School was dismissed. The school patrol helped keep order as kids were picked up out front. The boy caught snippets of the story on car radios as kids loaded. Many of the moms – dads were at work and didn’t do school pick-up back then – were in tears. The boy went home. The TV was on. Savannah only had two channels: 3 and 11. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were emotional. Cronkite, who personfied news at the time, cried on the air. The boy sat transfixed as the story progressed. A cop had been shot. A suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been identified as the shooter. He was arrested inside a theatre. Soon he was charged with killing JFK and the policeman. There was footage of Jackie Kennedy and her blood-stained dress and the swearing in of LBJ on Air Force One. The governor of Texas had been hit but would survive. It seemed the world was spinning out of control. TV covered nothing but the assassination, the investigation and the funeral. The Savannah Morning News carried the first 100-point, bold headlines of the boy’s life. The footage and still photos of the flag-draped coffin under the Capitol Rotunda and JFK’s stricken wife and kids were seared into the boy’s memory and remain fresh today. During the funeral the boy learned more new words; cortege and horsedrawn caisson. At night, the usual TV test pattern was replaced by a desk with a portrait of JFK and a flower arrangement. That still image aired for hours on end before the advent of 24-hour broadcasting. Soon, Oswald would be dead – shot by a nefarious character named Jack Ruby. The boy saw the photo of the shooting: Ruby thrusting the pistol into Oswald’s gut, the pain in the assassin’s face and the look of utter surprise on that of the tall Texas cop escorting his dying suspect. After several days, the boy went back to school with his classmates. More assassinations followed: RFK, MLK – what was it about those Ks, he wondered. The principal and teachers tried but life had changed and that full measure of happiness never returned to Heard School. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette.

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