I first met Walter Cronkite in the early afternoon, November 22, 1963.
I was 13 years old. We met briefly on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
I was a newly minted freshman at Ocean City High School, built high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic in 1912 and as unchanged over the decades as a cemetery mausoleum. I walked up the granite steps. I entered the square red brick building through the weathered and cracked oak doors. A blast of warm air washed over me.
The floors creaked. It seemed like just another day.
Among a number of vivid recollections I have of that day and year in the hours and the minutes before the president met his end is the weather. The skies were clear. The sun shone brightly. The leaves had long since turned and died. There remained some small, brilliant, clusters of parched color among the mostly bare, gray, branches. They were like the brightest shining stars sparkling against the blackness of the evening sky. I remember that clearly, as though it were yesterday. I remember clearly my father’s voice and the detail that was always present in his manner of expression when he tried to impress something upon me.
“Brilliant, aren’t they,” my father said of the dead but colorful leaves pointing them out in the morning when he drove me to school. “Such bright colors amid a sea of such drab grayness,” he said. I always thought Dad should have been a writer. When he spoke like that, he was more compelling than anyone I can recall.
“A month from now whatever colors remaining will be a memory,” he added wistfully. Everything and everyone dies – and then everything comes back to life miraculously, I often heard him say.
“Come here son,” he said leaning toward me before I jumped out of the car when we arrived at the high school.
I leaned toward him. He cupped my head in his hands and pulled me close. He kissed me on the cheek.
“Your father loves you, son. I love you with everything I have,” he whispered in my ear clutching my head. He could be so distant and yet so warm at the same time.
He said only what he meant. He didn’t exaggerate and he didn’t lie. He was unequivocal in every way; unambiguous about simple things and important matters alike. He could never say he loved me or anyone, for that matter, if he didn’t.
Every evening when I went to sleep and every morning when he dropped me at school he kissed me and told me he loved me as though it might be the last time I was with him.
It was reassuring and terrifying at the same time.
When school let out I walked down the hill toward the place my father always waited for me. He’d park his Buick under an old Elm tree by the entrance to the high school driveway, smoke a Camel and listen to the news on the radio.
The Buick was there. My father was standing outside of the car. He tossed his cigarette when he saw me coming. He waved wildly for me, motioning with his arms for me to run to the car. My father was for the most part an immovable object, rarely getting excited about anything. He was a man of iron-fisted habit who held inside whatever he was thinking except on the rarest of occasions.
He was shouting and gesturing with his arms. No stoicism today. He motioned for me to move my ass. I ran down the hill. I couldn’t make out what he was shouting until I got closer to him.
“The president has been shot,” I finally heard him say. There was no panic in his voice. Dad never panicked. He was the Rock of Gibraltar for me – afraid of nothing, I thought, not even death.
“Come on,” he urged me. “Hurry up!”
I reached my father.
We got into the car. We drove home listening to the radio and the reports filtering in from Dallas about the shooting of the president.
The news was grim.
“This is very bad,” my father said over and over without looking at me. “Very bad.”
Each time I tried to speak above the voice of the radio newsman my father told me to keep quiet.
“What happened?” I asked. “Who did it?”
“Shut up,” my father demanded.
“Let’s listen to the news reports.”
I remained quiet. We listened to the radio news as the chaos of the first minutes after the shooting of the president grew into more ominous reports about whether or not he was going to live or that he was still alive.
My father turned from Atlantic Street passing through two great Oak trees that stood like sentries at the beginning of the long circular driveway leading to our home.
He jammed on the brakes by the grand door at the center entrance. The car stopped abruptly, jarring us forward.
We got out of the car, slammed the doors shut and ran up the front stairs. My father pushed open the door. We rushed into the house, through the long hallway into the kitchen.
What I most remember about this day besides the weather are the emotions that my parents displayed – as they were prone to repress nearly everything relating to their true feelings.
My mother was crying in the kitchen. She sat disconsolate by a small black and white television set on the wooden table in the breakfast nook sobbing and sniffling. We joined my mother in front of the television set. We watched and listened.
Dad remained quiet, perfectly composed.
Cronkite appeared as calm and cool as my father. I didn’t know it then, I couldn’t have known it then, but seated behind a steel desk in the stark and barely appointed CBS newsroom in New York, the image of the younger Cronkite was that of a national newsman rising, speaking clearly with no affect, without ambiguity, in a way that gave everyone watching the immutable feeling that what we were hearing was real and truthful.
It was an entirely black and white image of the black and white era I grew up in, with Cronkite wearing a skinny, dark tie, a white cotton button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up seated behind the flat desktop covered with papers and three black telephones with people moving about in the background of the barren newsroom. After almost 50 years, the image remains indelible – Cronkite in shirt and tie with heavy black rim glasses seated and speaking extemporaneously without a script as the bad news came in like a flood. His words and what he said and how he said them in the moments after we arrived would echo through the generations.
My mother’s weeping stopped. My father’s attention was rapt. Not a muscle in his weathered face moved. There was the television, Cronkite and us.
“We have just been advised from Dallas that blood transfusions have been given to President Kennedy … no wait …WKRLD in Dallas is reporting that President Kennedy is dead. It is just a rumor. This is still not officially confirmed,” Cronkite said.
My mother began weeping again.
“He was so young and so handsome. What happens now?”
“Control yourself. Get a hold of yourself,” my father said to my mother. “It’s not the end of the world. The nation will survive,” he said to us with certainty. ‘What happens now is that Lyndon Johnson becomes president.”
Cronkite was handed another report.
“We have just learned that Father Huber, one of the two priests inside the operating room with President Kennedy has delivered the last rites,” he said.
Then the news came that rocked our world and changed the future.
“We have a report from Dan Rather in Dallas that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead…but we still have no official word.”
Cronkite would not concede the worst of this until it was official.
President Kennedy remained alive in the nation’s mind until Cronkite officially pronounced him dead.
Seconds passed. My mother cried uncontrollably. Kennedy was the most appealing man to be president she had known – and in an odd way – she loved him.
My father stood stoically by her side. He didn’t love JFK or the Kennedy’s. He was more an Eisenhower man. But he understood what the assassination meant. He was ever the battlefield veteran during shocking moments like these.
Cronkite broke the silence.
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. central standard time, 2:00 p.m. eastern standard time some 38 minutes ago.” He removed his glasses. He looked up at the newsroom clock as if to certify what he had just announced.
“Oh, God,” my father exclaimed. He turned away from the television. He crossed his arms and laid them on his chest. I saw him wipe away a tear.
Cronkite struggled to maintain his composure. There was utter quiet in our kitchen and in that primitive television newsroom in New York. Wherever Americans heard the news that day and year at this moment there was quiet and despair. It was like the deep and pervasive quiet that permeates the vast emptiness of outer space or that exists in the freezing cold at the bottom of the sea. A lapse of perhaps ten seconds went by …as my mother cried and my father comforted her…with Cronkite struggling to speak, choking back tears. He put his glasses on as if that reflex allowed him to regain his composure. He began anew, his voice hesitant and breaking at first and then gaining in raw command.
“Vice-president Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas but we do not know where he has proceeded but presumably he will take the oath of office shortly to become the 36th president of the United States.”
This is how I met Walter Cronkite. I did not know it then, Cronkite would be there with all of us throughout the seminal moments in our lives, in the life and times of the nation in the next three decades to come and that he would be there on the evening news, inseparable from the great events of the successive eras.
I did not know it then. I could not know it. No one can know what history has in store for us before it happens. Cronkite was destined not simply to announce the news. The time would shortly arrive when he became the news and shaped the future of the nation.
And that’s the way it was, November 22, 1963.