In the summer of 1963, I was looking forward to beginning college but being one of ten children in a blue-collar family, and being unable to find a job since high school graduation, it seemed unlikely that would happen. My scholarship would cover only tuition, which left books, room and board. I had received no information or advice about student aid and felt hopeless about my future. Home life was becoming increasingly more difficult so when Sgt. George Sterling, US Air Force recruiter, came to the house, I was ripe for the picking. Before I realized what was happening, I was stepping off a plane in San Antonio, headed for basic training at Lackland A.F.B. in Texas.
I got through basic training without too much effort. None of the job choices were very enticing but aerial photography seemed to be my best choice. It would get me into the air, an exciting prospect to a kid who had always dreamed of being a pilot, and it might be a useful skill once I was through with the military. My problem was that I was six feet tall and the Air Force needed many more air policeman than photographers. The thought of me being a cop was laughable. The humor wore off real fast as I underwent another nine weeks of intensive combat and security training.
As my unit neared completion of training, I received good news and bad news. My request to be sent to Aviano, Italy was denied and I was advised I would be one of seventeen going to Vietnam. The good news was small compensation. We were informed that President Kennedy and other dignitaries were flying in for a dedication ceremony of the new Brooks Medical Center on their way to Dallas. On the day before our special detail, we were herded into a large meeting room and briefed by the Secret Service, the FBI, military intelligence and local police. Although we were purely decoration, we were taught how to identify each type of plainclothes security or law enforcement agent by the lapel pin they wore, in addition to protocol. On the morning of the 21st, we were bussed to the medical center, given the daily password and additional briefing. Then for lunch we were seated at tables covered with white linen, adorned with real silverware, china and fresh flowers. Civilian waiters delivered food to our tables – very different from the mess hall to which we had become accustomed.
After lunch, we were dropped off at our post. It was an unusually warm day for late November and we stood stiff as toy soldiers lining the curved drive to and from the ceremony. As the motorcade approached, one guy a few feet down the line dropped to his knees, apparently from heat exhaustion. I guessed he was probably overtaken by all the excitement and having stayed up most of the night to cram for our exam scheduled for the next day. My knees shook a bit and I worried I might be the next to drop. As I watched the black Lincoln pass by within just a few feet from me, I could clearly see a very gray looking J.F.K. Seeing the young charismatic president, even in his weary gray condition, seemed to boost everyone’s morale, including mine. A few minutes later, we broke ranks and it was all over. On the bus ride back to Lackland, we all compared notes on what we saw, and how we were now part of history – the largest honor guard to ever stand for a U.S. president.
The next morning, our entire unit filed into the examination rooms and began filling in multiple-choice questions in the test booklets. At the first break, we congregated outside, comparing our answers and sweating the results. Some of us were bound to wash out and end up in the dreaded foodservice, but who? Then one airman, who had been sneaking a transistor radio in his pocket, said, “Hey, Kennedy has been shot!” No one took him seriously. A few guys got angry and one threatened to deck him. Midway through the second round of testing, a young lieutenant entered the room, strode to the front and addressed the class. “The President of the United States has been shot and is at this moment undergoing emergency surgery in Dallas…” he reported without emotion. Our mouths dropped. “…and now, I hope you will all join me in a prayer,” the officer went on. I didn’t think my praying would do a damn thing but I bowed my head and joined in. We resumed our testing, barely able to read the questions much less answer them. By the end of the third round, the officer returned and gave us the final bad news. It was more than any of us could process. Kennedy was a breath of fresh air for our generation. His sudden death felt ominous, more than just the tragedy of one man, or even a president.
The next few days, those of us who had not shipped out lingered around the dayroom, watching the rest of history unfold – the arrest of Oswald, L.B.J.’s assurance that the government was stable, and of course Jack Ruby’s assassination of the presumed assassin. Just as we were preparing to go off to our little war, the home front seemed to be falling apart. I shook my friend Mike Roche’s hand as he left to catch his plane home to New York for Thanksgiving. Still feeling the shock and sadness of our shared experience, and remembering how quickly other close pals had gone off, probably never to be seen again, I was pretty sure this would be the last time I’d see my buddy Mike. I was terrible at saying good-bye, especially good-bye forever. Then, as I watched my pal hoist his duffel bag and step on the bus, my thoughts returned to our dead president. It occurred to me how insignificant my disappoints were, especially compared to those of the family, friends and a shocked nation who would never again see their husband, father, friend and president, John F. Kennedy.