On Friday, November 22, 1963, when I was nine years old, my family was in the final days of a week in Washington DC between my father’s US Information Agency posts in Rome and Bogotá.
My father completed his morning briefings on the Kennedy administration’s Alliance for Progress, the president’s key economic development initiative for Colombia. After lunch, he was scheduled to meet for the first time with USIA Director—and famed journalist—Edward R. Murrow. Over the noon hour, Dad picked up our air travel tickets, managing to get us upgraded to first 2024class. He wondered if he could parlay the fancy travel into a gift for Mom. It was the eve of my parents’ eleventh anniversary.
My mother, my six-year-old sister, Susie, and I took a tour of the White House. It felt a little like visiting family, because I had shaken President Kennedy’s hand—looking him right in the eye, like embassy kids know is polite—in the ambassador’s garden in Rome just months earlier. I wondered if we would see him that morning, but Mom said that Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were on a trip to Texas. I imagined him wearing same the gray suit and purple tie he’d had on in Rome. Those were probably his travel dress-up clothes. Of course, Caroline, who was a little younger than Susie, was in school, like all children who were not on their way to a new life.
The plan for the afternoon was to buy new school shoes. Italian shoes were very expensive, Mom said, and very few shoes were available at the American base in Naples. There was a department store, Hecht’s, a few blocks from our hotel.
It was after twelve when we got to the store. Mom ushered Susie and me into one pie-slice compartment of the revolving door, and we were whisked into the makeup section. The directory said that shoes were on the lower level. Mom herded us onto the escalator, and down we went. Rows of shoes pulled us off the escalator like a magnet. I had never seen such variety. In Italy, it was pretty much one style in one color for one entire season, until everything changed. We waded in alongside Mom.
”They shot the president!”
My head jerked up. A saleslady standing at the end of the aisle had her hand up to her mouth. The next few minutes passed in slow motion as if we were all underwater. Grownups reached out for each other, their faces twisted. I could only hear my heartbeat. Mom gripped my hand harder than I could ever remember, and she pulled us back to the escalator and through the revolving glass door. My face felt hot against the cool fall air.
”What about the shoes?” I said.
”Yeah,” Susie said.
”Right now, we need to find your father,” Mom said.
All around us, people were stopped, talking like friends but upset. Mom steered us around the clusters. She was very good at this, Italian sidewalks being very crowded. I was used to it, too, but there was a whole other feeling today.
”What happened, Mommy?” I said.
”Walk,” Mom said.
The news of Kennedy’s shooting had hit USIA even faster, cancelling my father’s meeting with Director Murrow, and Dad was in our room when we got to the hotel. The television was on. They said the president was dead. The television stayed on until dinnertime without any of those fun American commercials.
That night, we traced our steps back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where a quiet crowd stood gazing at the White House. It shone in the night air as bright as the Wedding Cake, Rome’s Vittorio Emanuele monument. Just that morning, it was where my Man-in-the-Purple-Tie lived. It wasn’t anymore. Caroline and John-John’s daddy was dead. No one’s daddy should die.
I heard grownups around us crying, the kind of noise you might hear at the movies but not in real life. I kept one hand in my coat pocket, my fingers playing with leftover lint. Mom had my other hand, the tips of her long nails firm against my palm. Dad’s hands rested on Susie’s and my shoulders.
So, this dark sadness was death. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and hooked a couple of warm fingers around my father’s cold hand. Poor Daddy, feeling this punch in the stomach all alone on the airplane from Caracas to South Dakota when his father died. I wished I remembered my Grandpa Amerson, and then I was glad I didn’t because I would be feeling sad all over again.
I looked up at my father. His cheeks glistened in the glow of the streetlight. Mom’s, too. I had never seen my parents cry. Poor Caroline and John-John. I tightened my grip on Dad’s hand, and he squeezed me back.
We spent Saturday in the Maryland suburbs with foreign service friends who had recently moved back from Rome. I had been looking forward to the Saturday morning television shows I’d heard about. Instead, the adults monopolized the television. The programming was as boring as Italian news. I was impatient, but the adults’ faces warned me off of saying anything. The novelty of hearing American English on the TV screen made up a little for the disappointment.
Mom and Dad’s anniversary was forgotten. On Monday, while the presidential funeral procession was underway down Pennsylvania Avenue, we flew to Colombia.
The tragic death of our country’s young leader seemed to add a new, solemn dimension to my father’s upcoming assignment. The Peace Corps, the Voice of America, and the Alliance for Progress, all major programs in Colombia, represented the martyred president’s ideals. It was up to my parents to carry out their public diplomacy duties in a manner that honored our fallen leader.
Sitting on that airplane, my parents felt the zeal of Mormons sent around the world to “win hearts and minds.” The embassy presence was, after all, called the US mission.