Guest Spot: Four days in November

NBC COURTESY PHOTO | From left, NBC News' Frank McGee and Chet Huntley report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
NBC COURTESY PHOTO | From left, NBC News’ Frank McGee and Chet Huntley report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Arriving home from a memoir writing class I’ve been taking, my first action was to grab a cold cup of tea leftover from breakfast and put it in the microwave.

While waiting for my tea to heat, I browsed through the mail my husband had left on the kitchen counter, which contained the Channel 13 Monthly TV Guide for November.

The cover was very sobering, mostly black and pictured Walter Cronkite, renowned CBS News Correspondent, in shirtsleeves, holding eyeglasses in his right hand, a microphone pointed at his lips and a somber look on his face. Wham, I was back in time reliving that Friday in November of 1963.

I had started an essay several weeks ago so as to be prepare for the next time I would be called upon to read in the memoir class. My first thought after seeing THIRTEEN was, “I’ll never forget those days, I’ve got to write about this.” The other story was put aside and, forgetting the cup of tea, I sat down to write. That day, Friday, Nov. 22 was one I will always remember. That day and the ones that followed. And, the drums.

It was lunchtime and I was covering the phones in the offices of the NBC Radio Network Advertising and Promotion Department while everyone was out.

Shortly after 12:30 p.m. every phone in the office started ringing. It was all I could do to answer each phone, put the caller on hold and move to the next line, I didn’t have the time think why so many people were calling. When I finally got to actually speak with a person, the first words I heard were: the President’s been shot.

At the same time, one of the guys came back from lunch and asked if I’d heard the news. I put the caller back on hold and asked “are you joking?” He wasn’t and then reiterated: “Lauren,Kennedy’s been shot, turn on the TV.”

I ran into my boss’s office, turned up the studio monitoring device in there to see if we had anything going out on the air and turned on all the TVs. There was Frank McGee on NBC with Chet Huntley and Bill Ryan, all hunched together at the small desk in a tiny TV studio called a ‘flash room,’ reserved for small news broadcasts and located right off the 5th Floor Newsroom.

Mr. McGee had a phone in his hand and was trying to get information from the caller, Robert McNeil, who was in Dallas traveling with the President. Meanwhile, Mr. Cronkite was on CBS and the first to bring this incredible story to the public. He was dressed in shirt sleeves, having run to the CBS ‘flash room’ forgetting his jacket in the necessity to get in front of a microphone quickly.

Back at the NBC Radio Network in Studio 5C, veteran broadcasters Edwin Newman and Peter Hackes were ready to go when all the major television and radio networks interrupted their afternoon programming and spoke in quiet voices about a motorcade in Dallas carrying President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connelly and his wife. They went on to say that the President and Governor had been shot at, both may have been wounded, and were being rushed to a hospital nearby.

The NBC Radio Network offices were located on the eighth floor of the RCA Building, right smack in the middle of the Rockefeller Center complex in midtown Manhattan. The building was designed with a center core going through its 66 floors and housing 10 banks of elevator shafts. This design created open areas at the east and west ends of the building and long hallways on either side of the center core. I had been working for NBC for a little over a year and was very familiar with most of the 14 floors they occupied. Each one was laid out in the same format with executive offices in the eastern end of the building overlooking the Rock Center Skating Rink and business, sales and operational offices of the company were built into the outer walls on the northern and southern side, and studios were located in the south end of the building.

I had a split position with the NBC Radio Network in which I was shared by the Advertising and Promotion Department and by the Program Operations Department. Most of my days were spent running errands all around the building, which is why I knew it so well.

The broadcasting industry, television in particular, had not really been part of a news story of this nature before.

Whenever there was extended news coverage of any kind it was planned for well in advance and all the details ironed out weeks and months ahead of the actual broadcast date. For example, political conventions and nights of national elections were both highly anticipated by viewers, so producers, writers and editors worked for months in determining how to fill long periods of air time. When this news hit that day, everyone was totally unprepared and it was a catch and catch-can kind of broadcast that went on the air and stayed on for the next several days.

In those days, radio networks were basically programming service companies for local radio stations around the country. Their radio broadcast facilities consisted of three connected rooms. The first was a news-gathering area staffed with a news editor, newsman, writer and technical engineer. These people worked as a team gathering news from local, national and international sources.

The editor would contact or be contacted by people wherever a news story of any type was taking place and he would instruct the engineer to record news stories from these sources to be inserted into newscasts. All of the recorded information would be put on a large reel of tape kept in place on a tape machine 24 hours a day.

It was the ‘daily reel’ which would be archived at the end of the day and if there was something on the reel a newsman wanted to include in his hourly newscast, he would tell the editor who would have it recorded onto a broadcast cartridge which ran different lengths from five to 60 seconds or longer, depending on the piece. The writer would then type a sentence or two leading into the recorded piece and give that to the newsman to use as part of his script.

Those pieces of paper were banded with the cart and held by the news editor for upcoming newscasts or to be used later in the day.

The second room was the broadcast control room staffed with a director and engineer. These two people ran the live shows. The engineer sat at a control board which contained switches to turn the live mics on and off, consoles to play the carted inserts and volume controls for everything going out on the air.

The director sat across the console from the engineer and it was his job to say what was to happen and when. He watched the clock continuously, called the newsman when it was time to get into the studio, which was the third room, adjacent to the control room and separating the two was a large window through which signals could be passed from the director to the newsman and vice versa. Once the newsman was seated at the mic in the studio, the director would hold one hand pointed at the engineer and his other hand would be pointed at the newsman, both waiting for the clock to hit the exact second in which the director would tell the engineer to play the opening sounder for the broadcast and then open the mic and simultaneously signal the newsman to start speaking. It was all done very quickly and efficiently and for a first time visitor, it appeared to be very exciting.

When working the Program Operations part of my job, I would spend a great deal of time in these rooms. They were also where I spent most of my time those dark days in November 1963.

As soon as I was relieved of my phone duty, I ran down the long hall outside the A & P offices and headed for the stairwells, the fastest way down the the 5th floor radio broadcast studios and newsroom. Every production office, studio and control room had walls lined with television sets which were on 24/7.

Normally, they were tuned to different network and local stations providing production people the opportunity to see what the competition was airing at any given time. With word of the attempted assassination, every network was grasping for any news available on the status of the wounded President to put on the air as soon as it came in.

Similarly, our radio guys were in what they called continuous coverage mode which meant all regularly scheduled programming had been pre-emptied so they could stay on top of the story. When I entered the control room, the TV screens were covered with the rough film footage of the presidential motorcade.

The picture I saw was a terrified Jacqueline Kennedy climbing out of the back seat of the opened-top limousine with her hand reaching out to claim what turned out to be a piece of her husbands shattered skull. There was utter silence in the room as each of us digested what we saw.

It was just a short time later that the screens switched back to the various news anchors who then reported that President John F. Kennedy had died at 1 p.m. at Parkland Hospital. God, it was so painful to hear and heartbreaking to watch the screen with Mr. Cronkite fighting to contain his emotions as he made the first of the news announcements regarding the death of the president. The same was true with Mr. McGee, Chet Huntley, and Bill Ryan, all consummate professionals on the air, struggling for composure when they came on the air shortly after Cronkite and told viewers tuned to NBC that the President had died.

I was thankful for the stairwell again as I left the studios a short while later and was able to feel my own emotions at the country’s loss while climbing the stairs and going back to my desk. At that point, all my duties for the A & P department were put on hold and I was given over to the Program Operations people to be at their disposal for the next several days.

Decisions had to be made as to how to handle broadcast coverage and affiliated stations around the country had to be advised that all regularly scheduled programming would be cancelled and part of my job was to get that information out as soon as possible. I spent the next several hours running back and forth from the operations office to the studio with coverage updates for broadcast on a closed circuit to affiliated radio stations.

By that time, all three television and radio networks had decided to replace all regularly scheduled programming with classical music or live coverage of whatever was coming out of Washington, D.C.

Many hours later, I was able to go home. The subway ride that night was memorable because of the behavior of every passenger on that train. Their faces and bodies radiated the sadness and surrealism as they read their evening editions of the Journal American or the New York World Telegram and Sun, which had huge headlines on the death of the president.

Safely home with my family, we sat glued to the TV listening to reports about a man named Lee Harvey Oswald who had been arrested as a possible suspect in the assassination.

A short while later we watched the arrival of an airplane at Dulles Airport with the body of the president on board and waited for Lyndon Johnson and his wife to get off the plane and make a brief statement.

We felt the impact of the day even more when we saw the photographs taken during the long flight home of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president with a grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy by his side as witness, still dressed in the pink and dark blue suit covered with the blood of her deceased husband.

Watching that poor woman’s face was torturous as I thought ‘what must she be feeling?’ The Dallas trip was her first public appearance since losing her baby son 39 days after his birth just a few short months before. This was to have been a happy day for the Kennedys and for their supporters. This was the campaign kickoff to get the president re-elected in November of 1964.

In the production side of broadcasting, when a story of this magnitude hits, most employees go into overtime mode. I was one of those and ended up being called back to work on Sunday and Monday, which had been declared a National Day of Mourning by President Johnson.

I was to work in the studio typing what was referred as ‘the log,’ which was a record of what went out on the air and the exact times. And then there were the drums. Every time I reflect on those four days in November of 1963, the first thing that comes to mind is the resonance of drums.

On Saturday, in the wee hours of the morning, the body of the president had been moved into the East Room of the White House and laid on a catafalque similar to the one on which the body of Abraham Lincoln had rested after he was assassinated, in preparation for the dignitaries who would visit the casket later that morning. All this took place while the rest of the nation appeared to come to a halt as everyone coped with what had transpired the day before.

Once the funeral plans were announced, it became a day to shore up the human spirit, a time to prepare for the massive emotion of the lying-in-state at the Capitol on Sunday and the funeral on Monday.

On Sunday, Nov. 24, the body of John F. Kennedy was taken out of the White House and while “Hail to the Chief” was being played, the casket was put on a caisson to be transported to the Capital Building where the President would lay in state for the next 24 hours.

Coverage showed the appearance of Mrs. Kennedy, dressed in a black suit with a black mantilla covering her hair, majestic, erect, wan and beautiful, her face a haunted mask of sadness. With her were the two children, seen for the first time standing at the steps of the White House and watching the casket as it was brought out and put on the waiting caisson.

Then there was the long trip down Pennsylvania Avenue and the arrival of the cortege at the Capital where, again, we saw Jacqueline Kennedy standing at the foot of the Capital steps holding the hands of her two small children. Mrs. Kennedy bowed her head in an attempt to hide the emotions that had overcome her as she watched the caisson bearing her husband’s coffin come to a stop several feet away.

Still holding the hands of her children, Caroline and John-John a moment or two later, she bent down to speak with them while watching as the highspirited riderless horse “Blackjack” who had grown skittish and the tall private who had been leading him from the White House to the Capitol having to restrain the animal.

The pallbearers removed the coffin as the small military band again played “Hail to the Chief,” in dirge time and all the while, there was the soft sound of the muffled drums, thump-dida-thump, thump-dida-thump.

Back in the studio, I watched the people with whom I was working and wondered if they were having as much difficulty as I was in concentrating on their work.

A short while later, the flag-draped casket was placed on the same catafalque which had been moved from the White House to the Capital Building, with an honor guard at its four corners. Mrs. Kennedy and the children were the first of over 250,000 people to step up to the casket. She stretched out a hand and gently touched the flag as if she were caressing the face of her husband. She was followed by the Kennedy family, dignitaries and then the public who came for the rest of the day into the night until 9 a.m. Monday morning.

While the president laid in state at the Rotunda, the nation mourned. In New York City, it was interesting to see the elegant Fifth Avenue stores with television sets in their windows for passers-by to view the proceedings in Washington. Once the public was allowed into the Rotunda, I was able to take short a break from work to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

While walking over to the Cathedral from 30 Rock, I watched total strangers on the streets of New York City console one another. During the Mass, which was being offered by Francis Cardinal Spellman, a priest walked onto the altar from the sacristy and quietly spoke to the Cardinal.

Having never seen anything like this before, I wondered why as I saw the Cardinal shaking his head as he walk slowly over to the podium and announced that the nation had just witnessed Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death in Dallas. There was a shared moan among the stunned congregation at hearing this news from the Cardinal.

Leaving Mass early, I rushed back to work and learned the shooting had taken place while Oswald was being moved from the jail to an armored truck for transport to a larger facility. This was all covered on live television as he was led out of the jailhouse.

The newsroom was going crazy with varied reports coming in on the shooting, the Nation’s reaction, the feelings of people around the world at this stunning news which had taken place while the body of John F. Kennedy laid in state at the Capital. There was so much going on that November Sunday the radio and television networks had their hands full trying to cover it all, but cover it we did, and then, before we knew it, Monday had arrived.

A weary crew came alive for coverage of the funeral on Monday morning. Newsmen were back in the studios, engineers and directors seated in the control rooms, scripts were being rapidly typed and I was back at my typewriter keeping the log. When it continued, coverage was somewhat reminiscent of the previous day.

It started back at the White House viewing limousines lined up in the driveway waiting to take the Kennedy family back to the Capital where they would again view the casket of the President before it was taken out of the Rotunda, back down the steps to be put on the waiting caisson and taken to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral mass.

The Kennedy children did not accompany Mrs. Kennedy this time. She alone walked into the Rotunda and knelt by the coffin to say her final goodbyes.

She was immediately followed by Bobby and Ted Kennedy and then the rest of the Kennedy family. After, she stood outside the Capital with the Kennedy brothers by her side, she waited for the funeral cortege to begin and take the body of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. She waited to walk behind the caisson and the riderless horse, leading the procession of Washington dignitaries and dignitaries from around the world on that sad, long 45 minute walk to the Cathedral. And the rolling sound of drums continued, thump-dida-thump, thump-dida-thump.

Again, back in the studio, keeping our eyes and minds on work was an incredible challenge. After the funeral, we watched Jacqueline Kennedy outside the Cathedral with her two children by her side, we watched little John salute the coffin as it was brought out of the Cathedral and again put on the caisson.

We watched Caroline looking up at the tearstained face of her mother with a questioning look in her eyes. The family and the dignitaries standing and waiting, not quite sure what to do. Then limousines arrived to take them to the Washington National Cemetery for the burial.

For the flag to be taken off the coffin and given to the mourning First Lady. For the last fly-by of the presidential jet as it flies over, dipping its wing in salute to the slain president. For the last quiet playing of “Hail to the Chief,” for the last notes of taps as they were played on the sole trumpet, for the last sounds of the drums in the far off fields, thump-dida-thump, thump-dida-thump.

The Kennedy assassination is well remembered by thousands and certainly well documented. The only reason my memories are different is because I was part of a burgeoning industry which derived years of experience from this one event and has, subsequently, provided instantaneous continuous coverage of many tumultuous happenings.

To have been part of it was as exciting as it was emotionally draining as it was blood curdling. But I consider myself blessed to have been working with people who went to such lengths to make sure everything that went out on the air was truthfully represented and made people in wee corners of the world feel they were part of what was going on in our part of the world.

Yes, those were four days I will always remember.

Ms. Grant is a resident of New Suffolk.