Archive for November, 2018

The day the music died…

The days following President Kennedy’s assassination

The days following President Kennedy’s

By John Preston Smith – Contributing columnist


John F. Kennedy had a profound effect on all of us not yet encumbered with stone-hard impressions of what a President should be. He was endowed with so much charisma that the entire country had its spirit lifted, just knowing he stood for them.

As such, his murder on that grey, November day of 1963 brought all of America to its knees. The collective feeling of loss was profound. All forward motion came to a halt. Words of solace rang hollow. Faces were white and cold. Everywhere was deathly quiet. It was the day the music died…too, it was the day that America’s newfound hope died.

Teachers interrupted classes with the somber news. Children found their mothers weeping and their fathers arriving home from work visibly shaken. Families piled into living rooms to watch television, glued to the news out of Dallas. Our leader had fallen.

We all encounter life changing events: tragedies, celebrations, or unforeseen revelations and encounters that come upon us in the blink of an eye. Events never foreknown, or prearranged, or expected. Events that shake us to the core…events that change our lives to the end of our days.

A health scare, witnessing a shooting, an airplane that suddenly drops 1,000 feet before the pilot regains control, fighting in Vietnam when your outpost is overrun, watching in horror as towers collapse in New York, the murder of a friend or family member…there’s thousands of examples. You know what they are, dear reader…they’ve happened to you.

For me, President Kennedy’s death was the beginning of three days that melded into a life-changing experience that, since that time, has deeply affected my outlook on life’s precarious nature.

In 1963, I was an Information Specialist in the US Army stationed at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC. Two months prior to the shooting, I had briefly met President Kennedy when he paid a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (as it was known back then).

Three days after his death, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. My life-changing event lasted those three days. From the moment he was shot until his wife, Jackie, lit the eternal flame at his gravesite.

I was part of the Army public relations team in the Military District of Washington. Not only was our office tasked with providing information to the news media regarding any contingent of the US Army that would be participating during any of the events of the upcoming weekend, but too, it was our responsibility to plan and monitor all media stations along the route of the funeral procession. Keeping in mind that members of the news media were converging on Washington from all parts of the world.

For 21 hours, President Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. More than 250,000 people paid respects.

For reasons I cannot explain and do not understand, most of that weekend was a blur. I remember the activity level was beyond hectic, I remember working night and day, providing news releases, fielding questions from thousands of members of the news media, and mostly, preparing for the coming Monday, the day of the President’s interment.

At 10 a.m. on the morning of the funeral I was taken by military vehicle to the cemetery where I would wait until the procession arrived around 2:43 p.m. More than a million people lined the streets…many cried openly.

Throughout that day I was stationed on a wooden platform that had been constructed below the Custis-Lee Mansion (today known as the Arlington House) and just above the burial site. That platform held approximately 100 members of the media. Well known pictures of the cortege (funeral procession) crossing the Lincoln Memorial Bridge with the Lincoln Memorial in the background were taken from that platform.

Following mass at Saint Matthews Cathedral, the casket was carried by a horse-drawn caisson to Arlington National Cemetery. (A caisson is a two-wheeled cart designed to carry artillery ammunition and is used to bear the casket of the deceased in military and state funerals).

Black Jack, a coal-black Morgan-American Quarter Horse followed the caisson with boots reversed in the stirrups symbolizing a fallen leader.

I remember that there were certain notables I looked for at the gravesite. The ones I recognized were the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson, the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, President Charles de Gaulle of France, and Prince Phillip and Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, both of the United Kingdom. There were others, but these were the dignitaries I wanted to see. Kennedy’s funeral was the largest gathering of foreign dignitaries at any funeral in the United States, drawing 220 foreign dignitaries from 92 foreign nations, including 19 heads of state.

There were sights and sounds that will stay with me until my death. Muffled drums, steel horseshoes as they struck the pavement, Black Jack, the jet flyover, taps, “Ruffles and Flourishes,” “Hail to the Chief,” a detachment of cadets from the Irish Defense Forces performing a silent graveside drill.

And at the end of the service, I watched Mrs. Kennedy light the eternal flame.

At 3:34 p.m., the casket was lowered into the ground.

On November 28, 1963, Thanksgiving Day, Mrs. Kennedy visited the gravesite. I was there representing the US Army. It was an unexpected visit. A simple white picket fence, maybe 20-by-20 feet, surrounded the grassy gravesite with the eternal flame flickering in the wind. Thousands stood in line behind a single strand of rope that seemed to stretch forever.

After kneeling and saying a prayer, she opted to walk around the gravesite and view it with Washington as a backdrop. It had been raining and the ground was slippery. I took her arm to steady her from falling and expressed my sympathy. She merely nodded, but it was a sincere expression of appreciation.

That life-changing event was 55 years ago…. or was it yesterday?

“Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” John F. Kennedy

Thanks for reading, John

John Preston Smith is the author of nine novels, all are listed at Direct questions or comments to Proceeds support Hoops Family Children’s Hospital in Huntington, W.Va.

How dogs perceive the world (column #5)

How dogs perceive the world

By John Preston Smith – Contributing columnist


“Dog training affirms that his natural instincts and skills can be encouraged and developed.” UnknownIn my early years as a dog trainer, I realized most folks I encountered considered their canine companion to be more than “just” another friend. Let’s face it. How many friends do you make excuses for when they to poop on the carpet, shred your curtains, pee on your pillows, chew your shoes, jump up on you with muddy feet, or run away just because you left the gate ajar?

But for your dog, your beloved pet, anything is excusable and pardonable. Why is that? Simple. It’s because there are several aspects, senses, or instincts of dogs that make them a perfect companion, therefore forgiveness is justifiable. Consider this:

The pack instinct. They crave leadership, companionship, and family.

They are social. Whether it’s just you or a large family, they can be perfectly content.

The territorial instinct. Yes, this can be problematic. It’s why they chase cars, the mailman, all delivery men, squirrels, rabbits, other dogs…and it’s why there’s a dirt path worn along the front fence. But, in their minds, they are protecting your property and your life. It’s a pretty good trade-off if you ask me.

They have an uncanny knack of adjusting to our needs, wants, desires, and wishes; no matter how quirky or peculiar we might be.

There is a breed of dog that will fit into every lifestyle, whether you hunt or fish. Whether you live in the country or a city apartment. Whether you travel or are solitary. Whether you desire a companion, protection, alarm, or guard dog. Whether you are a car salesman or a car thief.

They come in every shape, size, and color… except plaid.

You can find one that’ll fit your disposition, whether you are content, gloomy, cranky, crabby, outgoing, sullen, cheerful, controlling, submissive, or ecstatic about life.

At the close of my last column, I mentioned that the precursor to training a dog is to understand basic differences between them and us. Here they are:

SIGHT: Not too many years past it was believed that dogs’ sight was limited to black, white and shades of grey. Research today indicates that they also see shades of yellows, blues, and violets, although much more limited than you and I. It is interesting that dogs recognize movement at a much greater distance than humans, yet the human eye maintains focus at a much greater distance than dogs. On occasions, I have noticed my dog’s blank stare into fields where deer roamed. It was only with concentrated effort that I could distinguish the movement that he so easily recognized. Therefore, it would be to your advantage when training your dog to consider using hand signals. Believe it or not, some dogs are easier trained with hand signals than verbal commands.

TOUCH: Most important during the socialization period. Once grown, however, they may or may not respond to petting, caressing, or fondling. Many obedience dogs, however, will work extremely hard for simple pat on the head. Research indicates that dogs respond to physical pain to the same extent as humans.

HEARING: Voice inflection and single words enhance his understanding of what we want of him. The words we use and how they are pronounced can encourage, discourage, excite, or demoralize. They hear sounds of a much higher pitch than humans and they hear faint sounds that we cannot detect. We’ve all experienced our dogs’ barking a welcome or warning of a coming automobile well before the sound of that engine reaches our ears.

SMELL: This is where the world of dogs and the world of humans separate. Imagine a bloodhound on the heels of a killer. He may be following shoe traces left on plants and dirt, or skin rafts (dead cells) lying about or floating in the air (we shed 30,000 to 40,000 skin rafts every hour.) It may be raining or snowing, and the track may be days old. Maybe hundreds of people and other animals have contaminated the original traces. Yet, the dog persists, never tiring, never quitting, until he finds the culprit. He has an uncanny ability to smell or sense chemical changes all around…in the air, on the ground, and on your body. He does not know that death approaches, but he does sense the chemical changes your body gives off whenever you have a significant mental, emotional, or physical change.

TASTE: Dogs have about 1,700 taste buds as opposed to your 9,000. Mostly they are around the tip of his tongue. But, he will also eat trash, antifreeze, or other toxic foods that may be poisonous. If you have an outside dog, and you have cranky neighbors, or have concerns regarding intruders, you might consider poison-proofing your dog. However, study the process thoroughly before proceeding, better still, enlist services of a professional trainer.

Knowing and understanding how a dog perceives the world through his sense of sight, touch, sound, small and taste, without question will make you a better owner, handler, and trainer.

Thanks for reading, John

John Preston Smith is the author of nine novels, all are listed at Direct questions or comments to Proceeds support Hoops Family Children’s Hospital in Huntington, W.Va.