The goosebumps were there. So were the tears. And it didn’t matter one iota that what Fran and Ron Milne were talking about happened 50 years ago Friday.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, changed their world. It changed everyone’s world.
Although I wasn’t old enough to remember the events of that day, I know it left indelible marks on the memories of those who were. It was the same on Jan. 28, 1986, and Sept. 11, 2001, those fateful days when the space shuttle Challenger exploded and terrorist attacks killed thousands, respectively.
But for the Milnes, who were working at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the events of that day remain as vivid today as they did when they heard the news and watched as Jacqueline Kennedy arrived with the body of her husband, still wearing her blood-spattered pink suit.
Ron was working at the 1001st Field Maintenance Squadron and Fran worked on the opposite side of the base as a secretary at Air Force Systems Command.
“I don’t even remember who initially said the president had been shot,” she said as we sat in their Boulder City home and they shared their memories and collection of newspapers and magazines detailing the assassination and events that followed.
“It was one of those … ‘He’s just injured.’ We couldn’t imagine that anything worse could have happened,” Fran said. “I remember one of the things millions of people said was ‘Let it be me God. Don’t let him be the one to die.’”
Then they prayed and cried and paced. Everything on base came to a standstill, Ron said.
Like thousands of people across the nation they couldn’t fathom what had happened. They were in shock. Kennedy had been so loved. The couple were America’s royalty, the nation’s king and queen, Ron said. “It really was Camelot.”
When news came of the president’s death and it became evident they would be flying his body to Andrews, no one was allowed to come on the base, with the exception of a few members of the media. Those who wanted to leave could. But few did, they said.
Ron’s squadron was among those that were called on to assemble on the flight line to greet Air Force One. He said they didn’t know what they would be asked to do or if a military honor guard was needed. His biggest fear was that they would embarrass themselves.
“Air Force people don’t march,” he said with a wry grin.
Yet somehow a small ensemble was formed, and provided the proper pomp and circumstance the occasion required.
“I felt so sorry for Jackie Kennedy,” Fran said. “I could see her. The impression I got was that she was absolutely alone, staring straight ahead.”
It didn’t matter that she was surrounded by people or that her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, was by her side, Fran said.
“The Kennedys were not just the first family. They were somehow part of all our families,” she said.
It was as if a beloved family member had died, Ron said.
The Milnes mourned the loss along with the entire nation. Grief transcended all boundaries of race, religion or social class.
They went to pay their respect, standing in line for about five hours in the bitter cold waiting to see Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol.
“It was so cold my hip joints locked up,” Fran said.
Because of the crowds and the freezing temperatures, they decided to forgo the funeral, watching instead on television. That didn’t make it any less important to them. In fact, they showed me pictures they took of the funeral as they watched it on their small black and white TV.
Then, I shared something with them. Something that made them smile despite their lingering grief. I let them know that Jackie Kennedy wasn’t completely alone in the days that followed her husband’s funeral. I knew she had a small staff of secretaries that helped her send out cards and notes thanking people for their gestures of sympathy.
My dear friend, the late Phyllis Forsythe, was among that group. She told me of those days right after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died on May 19, 1994.
And in that moment, just as it had 50 years ago, time stood still. An event that had unified the nation, unified a trio of people sitting at a kitchen table chatting over cups of coffee.