The Day They Lowered the Flags
by John Delach
Confused and dazed, I left my mother’s “railroad flat” at 1821 Himrod St. in Ridgewood and walked the eight blocks to the Myrtle Avenue el’s Seneca Avenue elevated station on this seasonably cool autumn afternoon, November 22, 1963. My mother was at work in the City, I had a class that evening and what else was I going to do? I waited for the old wooden el train to arrive staring into space not thinking; numb, robbed of emotion. I boarded the sparsely filled silent car, sat down and resumed my blank stare out the window over the rooftops of Bushwick as the train took me south toward my destination, Downtown Brooklyn. As the train rumbled above Myrtle Avenue, I began to focus on the schools and other city buildings that stood taller than the surrounding residential buildings. Some of these municipal buildings had masts that were flying the Stars and Stripes, a practice rather uncommon at that time. The flags attracted my attention but, what really caught my eyes was the realization that all of these flags were at half-mast. That is when it finally hit me: the President was dead!
The day had begun ordinarily enough. I had a curious schedule at St. Francis College that semester with classes split between mornings and evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Fridays, I had two classes in the morning from nine to 11 and one at night, a two-hour advanced history course from four to six. Professor James (Doc) Flynn, the department head, taught that class. He was a rough, tough professor who loved history majors and I learned more about politics, government and the Constitution from that man than any other person ever. To this day I recall things he imparted to me whenever an unusual political event transpires. He almost made it worth while to lose the early part of Friday night’s fun.
That Friday, after morning classes ended, I left the building on Remsen Street, cut between the courthouses and boarded the el at Jay Street to head home for lunch. We didn’t have a campus and I had become bored hanging around the cafeteria killing the afternoon watching others leave for the weekend. And to be truthful, I also had become addicted to the CBS soap opera, As the World Turns. It was during the episode broadcast that Friday afternoon that a jacketless Walter Cronkite, tie askew, first broke the news that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot while visiting Dallas. Cronkite returned to the air a bit later, now wearing a jacket and tie. He removed his glasses wiped a tear from his cheek before he told America, “The President is dead.”
Arriving on the train back at Jay Street, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs to scan the afternoon newspapers lined up on the corner newsstand to see if any had reported the awful news. I felt this overpowering need to see the truth with my own eyes, but the Journal-American, Post and World-Telegram and Sun on display were all early editions. Still I stopped and fingered one or two in hope that the absence of news could reverse what I knew to be true. Suddenly, a bundle thrown from a passing truck dropped to the sidewalk at my side. Instantly, someone cut the strap and greedy fingers from a crowd I had not noticed began devouring the latest edition of the Telegram. I was one of them mesmerized by the headline that filled the top half of the front page in four-inch high letters:
I went into a form of a mental breakdown, took my copy and made my way to the building on Remsen Street. I know I went to class.
While many of the classes that afternoon and evening had been cancelled, Doc Flynn didn’t abide by such a notion. His class would go on as scheduled.
I do remember Doc Flynn making a brief remark about our national tragedy before commencing his lecture only to quickly concede that the zoned out group of boys facing him were absorbing nothing. He stopped, dismissed the class and wordlessly, we filed out.
Did I stop for a drink at Jim and Jeans’ our local watering hole on Livingston Street or O’Keefe’s on Court Street, or did I just go home? I have no recollection of the night so I presume I must have just gone home.
On Saturday morning, I walked to our shopping area on Myrtle Avenue in a light rain, bought an American Flag that I brought home to display on a rope between our living room windows as best I could to publicly mourn our collective loss.
I so enjoy reading your blogs but this is one of the best; emotionally resonating.
This is really touching Dad. Thank you for sharing it. Did you forward it to St. Francis? It seems like it would be a really nice piece for them to share with their alumni.
From our office window I was able to see the caravan go by. One of the girls in our office was dating an assistant police chief and it was through him that we heard the awful news. For some reason (I think unjustly) the city of Dallas was blamed. Think that made about as much sense as blaming Hawaii for Pearl Harbor attack. We were all shocked and frightened as the rumors swirled around. The world was turned upside down for many.
At home we also placed our flag at half-mast.
Lots of folks still curse Dallas.
John – great post. I find myself wanting this to be chapter one. What were your observations over the next week as the story unfolded and the country mourned? Did Doc ever talk about it in class? If you don’t write it, maybe we can chat next time we’re in together. Great seeing you yesterday!
Nancy “Don’t change so people will like you. Be yourself & the right people will love the real you.” ― Unknown
I really like this one. With each major tragedy I like hearing stories like this. For the Sept 11 attacks I would like to hear how it impacted many of my cousins but I understand there is probably a lot of what they saw and heard that they would just as soon forget. I’m sure there are a lot of people in these parts who have disturbing memories of the JFK assassination. It’s more personal when it’s local. I remember a lot about when the Challenger exploded. I was home sick from school. In fact, I was sick the whole week and dropped about 15 lbs as all I could keep down was OJ for several days. So I watched that news with Mom. For OK City, I didn’t have the news on and wasn’t working that day. I first realized something happened when I got to the gym and there was a crowd of people around one of the TVs. Callously, I still did my workout. I don’t remember much after that. I remember talking to you on 9/11. You were the first person I could get a hold of and you gave me the reassuring news everyone was ok. My parents were in Alaska and I relayed that to them. Your story gave me a good perspective on how this would impact a young man just a few years into adulthood. Thank you.
Date: Wed, 6 Nov 2013 15:37:30 +0000 To: firstname.lastname@example.org
John, just read your tribute to the sad day President Kennedy was assassinated. I still feel the terrible sadness from that day, too and you conveyed the surreal atmosphere we all existed in for so many hours that day.Postings like yours lends relevance to young people who were not alive at that time. We will soon need to post reminiscences like yours for September 11th so people do not forget. Best regards,
John, I come away from reading the piece with a sense of isolation, cold as the late November air in the Northeast. Life continues, we play our roles, numb. It’s an odd, human reality. Like after 9/11. For me, also, like after John Lennon was murdered. That next morning even the subway crowds, pressed together and wreaking of coffee and wool, seemed distant and apart.
Thanks – Jeff
Hi John, A slight departure from your usual writing, I love how you have powerfully conveyed the feelings of that day in your sequential account and perfect example of ‘show don’t tell’. Not quite bold enough to put my words with the others on your blog, I did want to tell you how impressive and powerful I feel this is piece is, and think that recanting a poignant story Is your niche!
* Asterisk… I attended meetings at St Francis College, and in addition, have childhood memories of #76 Remsen Street visiting my great aunt and uncle. Wishing you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving, Florence, Taproots Sent from my iPad