The day Camelot died

Jane M. Earhart

November 22, 1991|By Jane M. Earhart

THE SHIP docked mid-morning Friday, Nov. 22. Friends and I were returning to New York City from a cruise in the Bahamas and planned to complete the vacation with a weekend of fun and frolic in the Big Apple.

Immediately after our hotel check-in, we were off to "do the shops" on Fifth Avenue. First stop was Saks. I bought a blue and white silk scarf, which today I can't wear without the memories of that day flooding back.

Going up in the elevator at Saks, we overheard two ladies discussing "yet another tragedy in that family." We gave it no mind, thinking they spoke of personal friends who had experienced a loss. By the time we were out of Saks and into the next shop, we encountered groups of people huddled in deep discussion, some weeping openly.

I asked a sales clerk what had happened. The answer: President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Making our way back to the hotel, we watched TV in a store window. Walter Cronkite announced that our president was dead.

*

During his campaign in Maryland, I heard him speak twice, first at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore and then at the Tidewater Inn in Easton.

The ballroom of the Emerson was a mob scene, and no seat was to be had. So a friend and I pushed our way to the front of the room and managed to charm two reporters into giving up their seats.

At such close range, I could see that the handsome, suntanned candidate was much in need of a haircut and was wearing a buttoned-down oxford shirt with a slightly frayed collar. As I recall, I was impressed by the speech but more by the man who gave it. He extended his hand to me afterward and murmured, "Thanks for coming."

The next day in Easton, the crowd was smaller. I managed to obtain an autograph on my linen handbag. For years the bag lay in a drawer, wrapped in tissue paper.

*

Does everyone remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1959 as clearly as I do?

Kennedy was smooth and articulate, while Nixon appeared unkempt and tongue-tied. Election night was a nail-biting experience. The following January, we sat glued to our TV sets to watch the inauguration in snow-covered Washington.

"Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."

*

That Friday evening in November, a prayer service was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral, just steps away from where we first learned of the shooting. The crowd packed the church and spilled into Fifth Avenue, causing a huge traffic jam. But drivers, aware of the occasion, sat silently in their cars -- an unheard of phenomenon in New York City.

The service ended with the congregation, most in tears, singing the national anthem.

*

Twenty-eight years later, I am almost twice as old as I was then. Those days of Camelot and the subsequent tragedy have remained vivid memories. The reminiscences bring a mixture of elation, sadness and, yes, disappointment that Lancelot's knighthood, had he lived longer, may not have been as shining as we had hoped.

Jane M. Earhart lives in Baltimore.

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