Remember the official road trip to honor a slain president

The shock of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the succession of a new president, and the killing of a killer on camera serve as an injection of hyper-realism for a nation yet to become accustomed to the fast lane 59 years ago.

Anthony Bannon

Anthony Bannon

Five college students learned that President Kennedy would be lying in state in the capital Rotunda and left the St. Bonaventure campus on impulse. As we approached Washington, D.C., the car radio carried the news about Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. These things happen in a split second, so fast that the present instantly becomes the past. Before we know it, the future is present, and time seems out of control.

I think I am the only one out of these five students who is still alive.

Ed Mason loved cars and owned a 1948 Pontiac sedan. Jim Leonard was a folk singer, Jim Daley a poet and John Hanchett a journalist, editor-in-chief of BonaVenture, the school newspaper. John died two months ago. One way or another, we considered ourselves five writers. We kept journals and documented our trip as follows:

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We broke the silence around Scranton. “Why do we do that?” John asked. Ed replies, “What does the word mean?” “Is there something wrong with my driving?” Silence. “I don’t know,” Jim Leonard volunteered. “We had to…” Jim Daley finished the sentence. “We have to do something.”

Police said at the mall to park a Pontiac farther from the Capitol. “The line is 58 blocks long,” the policeman volunteered. The Washington Post reported that 300,000 passed through the Capitol rotunda in 18 hours, on November 24 and 25.

Standing in that line for 10 hours might definitely seem pointless, unless you didn’t think it was, and you weren’t if you looked around. I have never been in such a multilingual group of people, with a common goal: to offer respect. Could it be a respect for the soul – and a fear of the death of the soul with the man?

Church bells toll during the day, and an elegant retired couple from Arlington, Virginia, dressed as if for worship, confidently located the ecumenical locations for the bells. Time has slowed down. Moments are extended to allow memory to quickly interpret and retain.

Right in front of us in line was a young woman with a baby, maybe a year old. She said they had flown in from Dublin because that is how it should be and now it was time to find a restroom. I left the baby with us and found my way back. The line moved slowly.

John Hanchett and I were classmates and good friends. He was the best observer of the unexpected. He took note of what wasn’t there. John was ready to change places to fit the world into tidy booths. He did not trust the status quo. He became a stellar investigative reporter for The Buffalo News, where a large number of Bonaventure alumni also found a voice early in our careers.

John and I shared our writing over funeral weekend, and later made sure to outline this experience together, thinking like the old man who told us that at our age he had observed the death of President McKinley in Buffalo. Together we watched the coffin come out of the Capitol and heard the silence of the crowd, except for the sound of people crying.

Then, as we were walking away, a pastor outside the storefront AME Zion Church invited us to join the congregation. “Get involved when you move to do it,” he said. We stayed for several hours.

John had a good sense of timing. After a proper silence, he suggested we sing “Over the Jordan.”

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