The caisson carrying President John F. Kennedy's casket turns onto the Arlington Memorial Bridge en route to the burial site at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 25, 1963. (FILE)
Road trip made three Manchester teens witnesses to history at JFK's funeral
It was late November 1963. Wayne Hoitt, John Murray and David Fitzpatrick were seniors at Manchester Memorial High School, part of the first full graduating class at the new school.
"The girls started crying. Guys like me were kind of in shock," recalled Murray.
Fitzpatrick was in the band room when the announcement came. "None of us could believe it, of course," he said. "Everything stopped; it was like we were all in suspended animation."
It was Hoitt who had the idea: "We have to go."
His parents, he said, were "yellow dog Democrats," and John Kennedy was their hero. "As kids in high school, this guy was just golden."
Murray brought peanut butter crackers; Hoitt had his Kodak Brownie camera. They had about 30 bucks and not a plan among them.
"It would be an adventure," said Murray, who stuffed a pillow and blankets under the covers to hide his getaway. "If I told my parents, they would say no."
They never got inside, but they got to talking with a kindly soldier from nearby Fort Myer, who invited them to bunk with him at his apartment in Virginia.
"I guess I thought it was kind of strange," he said. "He's the President of the United States and he's just going to be buried normally."
At the White House gate, Fitzpatrick showed the guards his New Hampshire driver's license. "And they said, 'OK, you're on the list.' And I walked to the White House driveway."
Hoitt also managed to persuade a guard that he was a reporter, for his school paper. (It was a lie.) "Got a camera?" the guard asked.
So he found himself inside the White House press office getting a pass that allowed him inside the gates, with a close-up view of the funeral cortege.
"I remember being so excited I was beside myself," he recalled.
When Jacqueline Kennedy came outside, flanked by Ted and Bobby Kennedy, the murmurs of the crowd turned to absolute silence.
"I'll remember that forever."
Hoitt had time to take just one photograph of the trio. And while the image is blurry, it captured the shadows on the ground of the three Kennedys.
"Think of everybody you've seen on television: reporters, famous people, prime ministers, Presidents, kings, queens," Hoitt said. "Think of everybody you've ever seen walk right past you. Everyone."
Fitzpatrick remembers French President Charles de Gaulle, a towering figure, walking alongside the diminutive emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.
"It was all somber," he recalled. "It was the pound, pound, pound of that funeral music playing. And they walked right in front of us, feet from us.
What struck Hoitt most is the memory of the three Kennedys standing there, waiting for the procession to begin. "They were like statues. But they were just people. They were just people at a funeral."
But Murray does. After he finally parked, he couldn't get back to the White House, so the 6-foot-2 teen found a spot on the street to watch the funeral procession. "I did see the caisson go by. I did see John-John, I did see Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline."
When he reached the 6th Precinct, he lucked out. "They said, 'We got two guys here that match that description.'"
The trio arrived home to admiration from their classmates - and trouble from parents and school officials.
They got one day of detention for skipping school.
Murray said it was years before he understood how truly significant the trip was.
For Fitzpatrick, the trip was the start of a journalism career that has taken him around the world at some of the pivotal moments in history. He was in Iran during the hostage crisis, Poland for the Solidarity movement, Bejing for Tiananmen Square and Berlin when the wall fell.
Hoitt enlisted in the Army after high school, trained as a radio operator and went to Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne, the first Army ground combat unit to go there.
He went on to a career in facilities management, retiring three years ago from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
For Hoitt, Kennedy's brief presidency was "the spiritual and ethical and moral height of this country."
Fitzpatrick sees the assassination as the beginning of changes in this country.
Americans have become more cynical, more set in their ways and less open to the viewpoints of others, he said. "And that may have started in those awful events of those terrible days back in 1963."
"It burns into the brain. And it never, ever goes away."