Most people recall where they were in November 1963 at the time JFK was shot and killed. I was a UNC-CH freshman on my way to English class. My teary-eyed professor arrived late that day and called off class. I wandered around campus, not knowing what to say or what the event might mean, as certain innocence ended and my teenage years headed toward closure.
Remembering that horrific event that occurred 50 years ago this month leads me to think back to a moment four years prior to that event, when I visited Washington, D.C., for the first time. My junior high school class had been invited to visit the Capitol by our congressman, Rep. William M. “Bill” Tuck. He had formerly been governor of Virginia and was a legendary political figure in the southwestern part of the State. Even in my teens, I was aware of a person named Bill Tuck.
Unexpectedly, we arrived at Rep. Tuck’s office on an auspicious occasion. The foreign minister of the then-USSR, Anastas Mikoyan, was in town to take a tour of the Capitol just like the members of my class. Mr. Mikoyan’s tour and our class tour of the Capitol coincidentally happened at the same time. There have been many wonderful trips to Washington, D.C., with family and friends in the past 50 years, but never in all those experiences did something so unanticipated and unforgettable occur.
As my class and teacher were walking up toward the Capitol, every 12 feet military officers stood at attention along the sidewalk. What most surprised and troubled me was spotting shooters in soldier fatigues stationed on top of the Capitol building itself. The sight of such an imposing military presence was new, and somehow strange and forbidding. We took a long walk to the steps of the Capitol. I can remember counting the Capitol steps but cannot now recall how many there were. Suffice to say, the number seemed large. Uniformed military personnel, politicians and tourists were everywhere inside the Capitol. The large crowd made it difficult to see much.
After walking up flights of stairs and down a few hallways, we located the office of Rep. Tuck. He explained to us that an important person was about to arrive and that we should follow the directions of our tour guide. He said that other tours were suspended, but he wanted us to proceed as planned. That seemed simple enough – at least that is what I thought at the time. Not only was there a military presence, but many other people were milling around, waiting to get a glimpse of the distinguished visitor from behind an Iron Curtain.
I had begun aimlessly milling around, too. My classmates, teacher and our anxious tour guide were somewhere ahead of me. That much I knew. But before I realized that I was “lost,” a military officer asked me where I was going. I had no idea about where to go or what to do, so I said so. He said simply, “Come with me.” Promptly, he escorted me to a spot against the wall and next to the door of an elevator behind a thick, deep red restraining rope. He said, “Stay here.”
Although people were visible everywhere in other spaces, I was alone. The moment of solitude did not last long, though. Six men in dark suits came to stand beside me behind the red rope. The man who took his place next to me reassuringly put his hand on my shoulder and asked me, “What brings you here, young fellow?” I told him what had happened only minutes before.
He said that it would be best for me to remain with him because someone would be exiting the elevator in the next few minutes. As I stood beside this tanned-skin, tall man, I caught sight of my classmates and teacher. They were behind another royal-colored red rope on the other side of the open space in front of me. Many other people filled every nook and cranny, waiting.
The elevator door opened finally. While I stood still with this man’s left hand gently placed on my shoulder, he extended his right arm and hand to greet members of the foreign delegation, one by one. The last person in the group was Minister Mikoyan. The man with his hand perched on my shoulder the whole time was a member of the U.S. Senate delegation and was the first senator to greet Mr. Mikoyan. Mikoyan presented as a man of average height with a thick mustache, wide forehead and receding hairline.
After the introductions and greetings were complete, the USSR and American delegations proceeded down a long, wide corridor. There I stood next to the elevator door against the wall with the hand of this nice man on my shoulder. He said that he would help me find out where I needed to be. I mentioned that my classmates and teacher were opposite us, behind the rope across the way. He proceeded to walk with me over to the place where I was supposed to have been all along.
My teacher was relieved and visibly delighted to meet and greet the man with me. Moments later, the man kindly smiled, shook my hand, and then turned away and headed down the long corridor to find the delegations. My class proceeded on our tour.
As we walked, my teacher asked me if I recognized who it was that had reached out and assisted me. I had not seen him before and said so. She responded, “He is Sen. John Kennedy from Massachusetts.”
Steve Salmony lives in Chapel Hill.