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Remembering JFK

A young reporter, and a pillar of leaves

By Nov. 25, 1963, most of the trees were bare at Arlington National Cemetery. The central grassy hillside was green-brown with the season and the wear of many shoes. On the horizon of the hill, a couple of hundred feet away, the evergreens stood in contrast to the neighboring trees whose season of glory was past.

It had been an historic funeral, saddening yet exhilarating to me as a young reporter for The Washington Star. When else had Charles de Gaulle, Ludwig Erhard, Haile Selassie, Prince Philip, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, King Baudoin, Queen Frederika and Anastas Mikoyan been assembled at one time and place?

Just a half hour earlier, the solemn ceremony had concluded as the widow lit an eternal flame and walked down the hillside with the folded flag, attended by her husband’s brothers and her young children. After they left, the fence and the flowers were moved aside to let the back-hoe and the front-end loader cover with dirt the bronze casket engraved simply, “John F. Kennedy.”

The ground around the grave showed the harsh marks of machines, brought in to do what used to be the work of human hands and shovels. The machines seemed out of place, a diminishment of the humanity of the day.

I could not bring myself to leave. The machines drove off and the workmen walked away. I was alone. It was after 4 p.m. by then. Looking down the hillside at the horizon's darkening sky, I thought that it must be time to go.

Oak leaves were falling.

I didn't notice them for the first split-second — it’s not extraordinary to have oak leaves falling in late November. But then I realized there wasn’t an oak tree within 200 feet of me. Where were these leaves coming from?

From as far up into the sky as I could see, perhaps a thousand feet, leaves — brown oak leaves — were falling, falling, falling on the grave and the ground about 100 feet around it.

News reporters generally are not mystical in their thinking. They are trained to think in logical, practical terms. Airplanes must have dropped the leaves in some kind of final tribute from the armed forces to the commander-in-chief.

But I wondered as I walked down the hill past the thousands of white markers of other fallen soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors, their graves still decorated with Armistice Day/Veterans Day flowers. Could it be anything else?

When I got back to the newsroom, I began to make phone calls. The Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, the CIA, the spokesman for the family — all knew nothing about it. The Weather Bureau was quizzed about the natural causes of such a phenomenon. The meteorologist said, yes, there could be funnels of wind that might pick up leaves from an area and deposit them many miles away.

The news space was filled that day; the story was not needed. I couldn't explain what happened. I felt uncomfortable writing about something I couldn’t explain.

I kept the notebook. I thought about the leaves on every anniversary of the assassination, but still I couldn’t explain it and I didn’t write it.

Years later, when fatherhood brought me to a church as the Sunday school teacher of fourth graders, I remembered the leaves one morning when we were reading the passage on the Exodus from Egypt.

“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.”

And I told the children, my son among them, of the pillar of leaves that fell from the skies in an oak leaf cluster onto the fresh grave of the slain American president.

Kenneth D. Campbell was a journalist with the Washington Evening Star, United Press International and the Boston Globe. He and his wife retired in Jaffrey. This story was reprinted from The Washington Times, Nov. 22, 2003, and is posted on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

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