Saturday, November 22, 2014

"President John F. Kennedy: Recollections of His Passing" by a Young North Carolina Writer

The Day John F. Kennedy Was Laid to Rest: A Nation Stunned and in Mourning

By Verne Strickland (age 26 at the time of this writing)

We headed for Washington, D.C., on November 24, 1963. It was a bright but cold Sunday as we rolled out of Raleigh in the waning afternoon. 

There were three of us – Will Rogers, executive secretary of the North Carolina Farm Bureau; Thomas Daniel, vice president, from Wilson, who had joined us in Raleigh for the trip; and myself. I was director of information for the organization.
Little was said on the six-hour trip up. We mostly stared at the passing scenery as the radio – giving continuous coverage of the crushing drame which was unfolding – forced us deeper into our own thoughts over what had taken place.
Surprisingly, the traffic on U.S. 1 Highway was not heavy. It thickened some as we approached Washington, but never appeared to be unusually heavy. We commented on this several times.
The first sight of Washington made my heart strike with a dull, reverberating thud. The commentators on the radio, it seems, had prepared us for this. We did not enter the city  that night. But as we neared the Potomac, we could see the Capitol Building shining cream-colored there amidst a sea of twinkling lights on a deep field of black. The President’s body lay there in state, and knowing that it was there seemed to hush our emotions as well as our voices. Washington was in mourning.
We found a motel at our first stop. This, too, surprised us, for we were aware that thousands upon thousands had flocked to Washington to pay their respects to the late President. We all turned in about 1:00 a.m. But even with the lights out, we continued to leave the television going, and watched intently from our beds. At about 2:00 a.m., the station concluded its broadcasting for the day, and we fell into fitful slumber.
As we had ordered, we were aroused by telephone at 4:30 a.m. Somehow we had no trouble waking and moving about as we prepared ourselves to leave. The television was again snapped on. We saw an unending procession of mourners filing through the Capitol Rotunda past the bier which bore the flag-draped coffin of President Kennedy. Sorrow-inspiring organ music in a minor key was the only sound emanating from the television. It was as if the announcer felt nothing could be added.
It had been cold in the room. But outside in the pitch black of early morning the cold was biting and bitter. As I had no overcoat, I had bundled myself in two pairs of pants, three undershirts, a sleeveless sweater and my black woolen blazer. I had questioned my appearance in the fact that my blazer bore silver buttons. Even this seemed to me gaudy at the time.
There was no heat in the automobile – a long, roomy station wagon. Thus, the interior was barely warmer than the air outside. There were stars above as we crossed the Potomac by way of a bridge. Other cars moved with us and met us. And there was the Capitol in the distance. Agreeing that the crowd of mourners must have thinned by this time, we headed straight for the Capitol. It was our intention to file past the bier if there was opportunity.
In the city, things were different. In the dark, people could be seen in patches on the sidewalks. Cars moved about, but not in number. We parked a block from the Capitol building and began mounting the long series of stone steps to the Capitol’s rear entrance.
We began to think that  the television reports must have been in error. Though there must have been an unusual amount of people out for that time of morning, we commented that our assumption must have been right – perhaps the line gathered for the quick trip through the Rotunda had dwindled. Certainly few people would have the fortitude to stand in line through such a hard-cold night.
Big globes cast a cold light on us as we mounted the steps. All around us were the hushed voices of black figures whose features were hard to distinsguish in the pale globes’ glow. I happened that we had approached the Capitol from the opposite side of the line, as a policeman explained. We should have known, as more people were descending the steps than ascending.
A few lights, curtains drawn, were lighted. I wondered what person must be inside, and what he must be doing. I felt small as I contemplated the sad, awesome business he must be about.
The line. We saw it as we finally rounded the stone corner to the front of the Capitol, and passed under a lofty archway. It stretched down the innumerable steps and out of sight in the dark to our right. A policeman would not let us nearer, perhaps fearing that we might break the line. He told us that it stretched for 28 blocks, and that some of the people might not even get inside before the Rotunda was closed at 10:00 a.m. It happened that he was right.
We decided to leave. People to the the side of the Capitol shaded their eyes and peeked curiously through locked glass doors of the tremendous building. We left under a sky now a fading blue-gray. Dawn was approaching. We found our way to Union Station, where we decided to have breakfast. Inside there was a great amount of activity. People walked about, and others sat on the many hard-backed wooden benches and napped.
We had to stand in line to eat. We seated ourselves and noted diners all about us engrossed in newspapers whose heavy black headlines told the still stark news of the day. The waitresses, seemingly old and wrinkled, joked with us and two fellows seated nearby. It did not somehow seem in bad taste.
Mr. Rogers and Mr. Daniel decided we should go the St. Matthews’ Cathedral to station ourselves and wait for the procession. I had suggested going to Arlington Cemetery for the interment which was scheduled for mid-afternoon. I consented to the Cathedral trip, not realizing that they meant for us to remain there. The dawn had not fully arrived as we parked in a small lot, already filling  with mourner-bearing automobiles.

The walk to the Cathedral – some four or five blocks distant from the parking lot – was one I shall never forget. At that early hour, crowds had already begun to deepen on the curb along the procession route. Some men, dressed only in suits, hunched their shoulders against the cold. We passed clusters of figures sleeping figures lying on the sidewalks at the feet of those who stood. One prone figure had a blanket pulled over his head. I saw a fellow walking along carrying an Army sleeping bag. He appeared to be just arriving. Though we were only three among thousands, I seemed to feel that we were about business, and had a purpose in being there. We reached the Cathedral, and decided to go inside before claiming a spot on the sidewalk. The curb had only a single line of people at that time.
The Cathedral, from the outside, was bulky and heavy in appearance, with none of the grace nor pomposity I had expected. Its red-bricked exterior seemed small considering the occasion of which it was destined to be a part. Inside, though, it was lofty. The exterior had been deceiving. It was almost full, and some sort of service was going on at the altar. A gloriously-robed priest moved about there and uttered phrases in Latin. I fought down a whisper of a feeling that I was invading the Cathedral’s sanctity because I am Protestant. We remained only a moment there at the rear of the church, and then went back out. 

(I wrote no further at this time, but later penned a poem about the whole experience. It seems to extend the narrative you’ve seen here.)


“Waved his hand while time was waning, rode the streets where Death did wait. Infamy its head was rearing on that day in Texas State.

“Bright the sun shone there in Dallas. Smiling crowds stood row on row. Black the heart that looked upon it. Black the day life’s blood did flow.

“By his side was one who knew not what the day would chance to bring. Smiled she, too, until a bullet caused a funeral dirge to ring.

“Those of us who only knew him, as we watched him from afar, like as not felt,  too, the void which from that day her joy would mar.

“Weep we now for that young widow. Pray we, too, the scythe of time may from here heart extract the scars which blemish thoughts of days sublime.

“Sublime? Oh, no! For days on earth are filled with thorn as well as rose. And her days here, without her mate, must surely rhymes of tears compose.

“Walked a street where rolled the caisson that his lifeless body bore. Stood in crowds, bent now in sorrow, felt the sting of Nevermore.

“Cold the wind blew in that city, where the cortege, weaving, crept. Stirred, then, thoughts of colder clime, which would his now-stilled form accept.

“O’er his casket watched the colors that he hailed and served and sought to keep a-waving that this Nation strong would stay. And this was wrought.

“Black lace shielded by the grave the tears which from those dark eyes fell. Dust to dust, and ash to ashes. Take him now. He served Thee well.

“White-gloved hands then rushed to fold this flag for which he so did care. Impassioned, vowed we to remember that the torch is ours to bear.

“Hearts were hushed as ‘cross the river floated soldier’s sad drum roll. We are here to face tomorrow. God have mercy on his soul.”