Friday, Nov. 22, 1963: University of Arizona classes were over for the morning and I was driving to lunch at the Alpha Phi house, a sorority I had pledged as a freshman two months earlier.
The day was warm and clear, traffic was heavy. I remember the car in front of me had a bumper sticker touting Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964.
Inside the sorority house, I was making my way up the stairs when one of the pledges coming down the stairway — sorry, I don’t recall her name — stopped me to ask, “Have you heard? President Kennedy has been shot.”
That encounter, those words, still reverberate from a half-century ago — a time with no cellphones, no Twittter, no YouTube, no 24/7 news cycle.
Together, the two of us made our way back down the stairs to an almost-empty living room and a television set where Walter Cronkite was holding forth in black and white. Most of the other girls seemed to be upstairs in their rooms, making plans for the military ball scheduled for that evening.
The few of us in the living room watched in disbelief as the reports kept coming in, until finally Cronkite adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses to read the official dispatch: Our president was dead.
Others soon joined us in front of the television set. Some were crying. Some were wondering if the military ball would still be held that night. It would not.
I don’t remember if I ate lunch that day. But I did drive over to the architect’s office where I worked part-time, typing up letters and running off blueprints. Nobody was there when I let myself in.
I must have been there an hour or so when the phone rang. It was my boss. “I’m not coming in today,” he said, in a voice so soft I could barely hear him. “Go home, Bonnie.”
My mother had the television set on when I got there. Together we watched as the pictures flashed across the screen that afternoon and into the evening: Vice President Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One. A numb Jacqueline Kennedy standing witness in her pink, now-bloodstained jacket. Air Force One arriving at Andrews Air Force Base and the removal of President Kennedy’s casket.
Two days later we watched, incredulous, as Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby shot Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to death during a jail transfer.
Most heartbreaking of all was the funeral that Monday: the cadence of drumbeats, the riderless horse, the world’s heads of state marching behind the casket, the beautiful widow all in black, 3-year-old John-John’s salute to his fallen father, the burial at Arlington, the lighting of the eternal flame.
Like most Americans, I stumbled, trancelike, through those days, grieving not only the loss of a president but also the loss of our innocence. Nothing would ever be quite the same.
In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that our placid, still-1950s mindset also died on that November day in Dallas, ushering in the tumult of the 1960s: the Vietnam War, more assassinations, an intensified fight for civil rights, women’s liberation, Woodstock, man on the moon.
Life changed for me as well. I never did join that sorority. Instead, I married not quite a year later, quit college, worked full time to help put my husband through school, began raising a family. Eventually I did return to earn my degree at the UA and pursue a career in journalism.
Today, you can watch the entire assassination and its aftermath unfold on YouTube, from motorcade to funeral. For me, there is no need. I still see it all as clearly as I did beginning on that blue-sky day in November so many years ago — the day someone stopped me to ask: “Have you heard? President Kennedy has been shot.”