The Hoot issue 13 - Eric Gibson (OWL'66)
An article written by Eric Gibson for the Wall Street Journal
When an American School Boy in England Hear About JFK
When an American School Boy in England Hear About JFK
by Eric Gibson (OWL'66) the Journal's Leisure and Arts editor-
The Wall Street Journal dated November 12, 2013
When an American Schoolboy in England Heard about JFK; I was thoroughly immersed in British boarding-school life—until news of the assassination arrived
"Do you remember where you were when JFK was shot?"—the famous question, destined to be asked as long as there are baby boomers around to answer it.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I was 10, and in my third year at a British boarding school, my father's job having moved our family from New York to London in 1960. Three-plus years after our move, I had become so cut off from the United States that the place I once called home was now a distant, unfamiliar country, my sense of national identity virtually nil. President Kennedy's death would, for a time, change that.
The school, Windlesham House, catered to boy’s ages 7 to 13. It was (and is still) located in rural West Sussex, the epitome of England's green and pleasant land. To recall that time is to conjure up a vanished world. We went by our surnames, saw our parents rarely and communicated with them only by letter. There was no phone, TV or radio. Corporal punishment was still on the books, and Windlesham didn't spare the rod—or in our case The Strap, a thick strip of leather that inflicted a searing, shattering pain. The authority of the Masters—teachers—was absolute. "There’s not to reason why," wasn't just a line from Tennyson, it was our watchword. It could have been carved over the front door.
Associated Press President John F. Kennedy
In my second year, I had joined the choir. And so it was that on that fateful November day, I and some two dozen other boys were in the school chapel, finishing our evening rehearsal for the coming Christmas-carol service. The choirmaster had just called time when a boy named Brewer, a few years ahead of the school’s star athlete, shouted up to him in the organ loft that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in an open car in Dallas..
We were stunned. The news tore open our West Sussex cocoon, thrusting President Kennedy and America into the centre of our lives and reconnecting me, suddenly and brutally, with home. The president. Killed in broad daylight. How could this be?
In the classroom, I had been learning that much of Britain's glorious history had been written in blood. Certainly, from the Norman Conquest to the end of the Stuart era kings, princes, even clerics, were murdered with startling frequency. This was to be expected; it was the Past.
But we were living in the Present, a more advanced stage of civilization. The proof was everywhere. A portrait of Winston Churchill hung in the school library, symbol of a war fought and won, its privations receding into memory with the gathering economic expansion. The Space Age had dawned. A classmate named Thatcher spent his idle hours picturing rocket ships. Men were orbiting the Earth. Soon one would be setting foot on the moon—President Kennedy himself had said so. Ours was a different world. Then it wasn't.
Yet so removed was I from my former life that President Kennedy was little more than a name to me. We hadn't returned to the U.S. once since moving, and had almost no contact with the relatives we had left behind. Overseas news tended to be scarce. Until the assassination, the big stories of the day had been the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo Affair. At Windlesham, my total immersion in British life and culture was effecting an existential makeover. I now spoke with an English accent, could rattle off the names and dates of nearly all the kings and queens of England—but other than Kennedy, Washington and maybe Lincoln, I couldn't name a single U.S. president. I thought Arkansas was pronounced like Kansas, only with an extra syllable.
So while the world was asking, "Who shot JFK?" I was preoccupied with more parochial concerns: How had Brewer come by this information? Not from outside; we were sequestered during practice. The only possible explanation was that he had smuggled in a transistor radio—a bold, even reckless move considering that such things were prohibited and that the choirmaster wasn't a man to be trifled with.
We were quickly dismissed and joined our schoolmates upstairs getting ready for bed. I was brushing my teeth at the long row of sinks lining one of the hallways when the boy next to me, with the casual cruelty children sometimes display, made a what's-the-big-deal crack about the assassination. Before I knew what I was doing I had rounded on him and was angrily demanding to know how he'd like it if his president had just been shot to death—in the heat of the moment forgetting that Britain has a prime minister.
What had I done? For the past three years, I'd deliberately kept the lowest of low profiles with respect to my nationality, not because of any anti-Americanism at Windlesham—there was none—but to smooth my passage as an outsider. Yet here I was, on a reflex, putting it out for all to see, my neighbour’s jibe having brought out an anger and defensiveness I never knew I had. Clearly, JFK's murder had struck some long-buried atavistic chord and snapped me back to my American nature.
Disrespectful as it sounds, President Kennedy's assassination was a boon in one sense. It won us a reprieve the next day from the hated ritual of "Saturday Tests," all-morning exams on the previous week's course work. Instead, after breakfast, we filed into the chapel for a service in which we were asked to pray for President Kennedy and for someone I'd never heard of: Lyndon Baines Johnson, the new president. Afterward we gathered in the headmaster's wood-panelled study, where he spoke about President Kennedy's life and sought to explain the meaning of this terrible event. At the end, he announced that, in honour of the funeral, Monday's schedule also would be scrapped. And he invited anyone interested to join him in the family quarters to watch the funeral on TV. (When Churchill died 14 months later, he would extend the same invitation, only attendance would be mandatory.)
With my newly recovered sense of country, I decided it was my duty to accept and show the flag. But as the hour drew nearer on Monday, my resolve weakened. Windlesham life was so tightly regimented that an unexpected day off was a gift. Then, to a child TV is strictly an entertainment medium. The prospect of watching a funeral, even the slain president's, seemed, well, boring. In the end, the 10-year-old won out over the patriot, and I hung out with my friends, racked with guilt and fearful that one of them would call me out. None did.
Soon enough, regular boarding school life closed back around us, and my cultural immersion resumed, so that by the time I left Windlesham two years later the only thing American about me was my passport. But on Nov. 22, 1963, JFK's assassination had recalled me to my origins, interrupting, albeit briefly, my transformation from young American to proper British schoolboy.