Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Fifty-three years ago today
President and Mrs. Kennedy had breakfast in Fort Worth and later in the day rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.
Then the world as we knew it ended.
I was a 22-year-old airman, married for six months, and working in Strategic Air Command's underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
A year earlier I had completed twelve weeks of training to become a computer programmer, but when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in the fall of 1962 we enlisted folk who worked in the underground were formed into details to move lots of furniture on dollies up many ramps to the main Headquarters building so that the Battle Staff of twenty-some generals could live in the command post for the duration of the crisis. No one knew how long that might turn out to be. We were in the middle of moving furniture up and had not yet begun the equally formidable and muscle-wrenching task of moving other furniture down when a Chief Master Sergeant appeared and asked, "Does anyone know how to type?"
Since I could type quite well (about 120 words per minute) and I also thought this might be a way to get pulled off the furniture-moving detail, I ignored the little voice saying never to volunteer for anything, and said, "I can."
He said, "Come with me," and for the next 18 months I worked as a clerk-typist in Colonel Shirey's office along with Captain Bendorf, Major Something-or-other, and civilian Ginny Milacek. I also could take shorthand, which proved helpful. After the Cuban crisis had passed and the underground had been reconfigured again -- I was not recruited to help this time -- Colonel Shirey's office was moved to just off the Command Staff Balcony. Every day I had a full view of the two-story-high maps and data projected on the walls as well as the screens and consoles on the main floor below. One of my assigned duties was to clean up the balcony area after each use. In the spring of 1963 I went back to Florida to marry Mrs. RWP, and when we returned to Nebraska I had already moved out of the enlisted men's barracks into a small apartment just outside the back gate of the base, on a street of houses near the Missouri River. We lived so close to my work that I could easily go home for lunch and often did. At some point that year, Ginny quit to get married and another civilian, Irene, replaced her.
On November 22, 1963, I said to Irene, "See you in a bit," and I went home to have lunch with Mrs. RWP as usual. When I walked back into the office, Irene said, "The President has been shot." This was such an unimaginable scenario that I replied sarcastically, "Yeah, what else is new?"
"I'm serious," she said. "Look down on the floor at the consoles." I went to the edge of the glassed-in balcony and peered into the command post below. All the officers were gathered in groups around several communication centers, trying to learn as much as possible as rapidly as possible. It wasn't chaos, but there was a tense, deadly serious air about the scene. Irene hadn't been kidding.
The phone rang on my desk. It was Mrs. RWP telling me what she had just seen and heard on television from Walter Cronkite. "I know," I said, "I found out when I got back to the office." I mentioned that things were uncertain at this point and that I may have to remain on base overnight, but as it turned out I was able to go home at the end of the regular work day. The next few days were a very sad time for Americans, most of whom watched not only the state funeral but the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television by Jack Ruby in the Dallas Police Station.
My lasting memories of that week include the motorcade above, Mrs. Kennedy walking in black behind the President's casket, and the moment caught by UPI photographer Stan Stearns that broke the nation's heart:
Eventually I did become a computer programmer again, but that is a story for another time.