After the week of the fair, Buttercup returned to her meadow, where she reigned as queen for the rest of her long life.
Ida wanted to tell everyone the good news, but she quickly realized that practically everyone she wanted to tell had been in the coliseum and had watched Buttercup win the championship. Ida had to be content to bask in the warm glow of victory.
Just before school was to begin, Ida took Robert and Charles to the school cafeteria to buy their books. Robert always looked forward to the occasion, for he loved to walk up and down the tables to see the covers of the books for all the grades. The fragrance of the volumes resembled that of a cup of fine tea. Ida scrutinized the used copies to make sure they were the same editions as the new books, and she bought used whenever the books contained no marks, underlining, or notes. Quite often, she purchased new printings. On the way back across the road, Robert and Charles carried armloads of books.
Just at the end of August, the television carried news of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The cameras panned across a multitude of people—more people than Robert could imagine in one place at one time! Robert tried to understand what the newscasters—with their perfectly trained voices and equally perfect grammar—were saying, but, at key moments in their sentences, their vocabulary exceeded Robert’s and he lost their meaning. He had a penchant for words, so he kept trying, and, during commercials, he asked his mother what various terms meant.
Her early teenage years in the Methodist Children’s Home in Lebanon, Indiana, had given Ida a steadfast faith. She hoped that past maladies leading down to the present hour could be made well, but she feared that the illnesses afflicting the nation might not find cures.
In defining words, Ida attempted to conceal her vague sense of foreboding, but Robert discerned her worry about the future.
Robert entered Mrs. Winegardner’s fourth-grade class. Mrs. Winegardner was as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar. Her eyes fixed each student in place, and she held all students to the highest standard. She had one of those faces of artistic concentration like a Willa Cather or a Gene Stratton–Porter. Like Joe, Robert’s father and her classmate from long before, Mrs. Winegardner loved history. When she taught about Clay and Webster and Calhoun, she brought to life their powerful points of view. Little by little, she nudged the class toward an understanding of the long history of conflict that was the foreground for current events. Robert found the concept of inequality incomprehensible, yet his American history book reported a story the theme of which was inequality from the American Revolution forward.
The school year promised to be rewarding. Mr. Charles “Charlie” Coffman had been named the interim principal; the beloved teacher, 4-H leader, FFA sponsor, and organist at the county fair was admired by all the students.
In November, Ida wrote on the back of the wall calendar provided by Messner and Sons (Clothing and Shoes for the Entire Family, Phone Dudley 5-2041) of Oxford:
see egg man
At school that November afternoon, Mr. Coffman came to Mrs. Winegardner’s door. Robert looked up in astonishment. Mr. Coffman was crying!
He said, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I don’t know a good way to say this. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas, and he has passed away. School will end early today. I’ve already called in the bus drivers.” With that, he put his handkerchief to his eyes, turned, and was gone.
Mrs. Winegardner, who was sitting at her desk, slowly closed her book. She was staring through the open doorway. She took a deep breath and faced her class.
“Well,” she said. “This is a difficult time. Please put away your books and wait quietly.”
Mrs. Winegardner stood and walked just outside her door, where she spoke softly with the other elementary teachers. Mrs. Leighty, the fifth-grade teacher, was crying. Buses began appearing in the parking lot outside the fourth-grade windows. Soon, everyone was sent home.
Now Ida knew what her ominous feelings had meant. She was witnessing the shattering of the age.
The television remained on throughout the waking hours that weekend. Ida did not feel like cooking Sunday dinner, so she suggested the family go to a restaurant in Boswell. Joe drove into town to invite Aunt Margaret, who put on her winter coat, gloves, and hat and accompanied Joe back home. When he parked by the front gate, Aunt Margaret walked into the house. The TV camera was showing the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters where Lee Harvey Oswald was to be transferred to the county jail. Just then, a man in the crowd approached Oswald. A commotion ensued, deepening into pandemonium.
“I think somebody just shot Lee Harvey Oswald,” Aunt Margaret said. No one else said anything. It was stunning to be watching an event of such magnitude as it happened. The family stood in front of the television for several minutes, until Ida thought everyone had seen enough for the time being. She switched off the set. In the cold outdoors, Joe, Ida, Aunt Margaret, Charles, and Robert filed to the car for the short trip to the restaurant.
School was cancelled for Monday so that everyone could watch the funeral on television. Images on the TV burned into Robert’s memory, the eternal flame one of the last.
It was exactly as has often been said: those that were alive then would remember for the rest of their lives what they had been doing when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination arrived.
The often expressed presumption that the nation had entered an exciting period of youthful vigor characterized by a relatively young President had vanished.
Nothing felt the same after that.