Like most Americans 50 years ago, Michigan residents Carol and John Van Zytveld were following the ongoing tragedy surrounding the shooting of President John F. Kennedy.
On a spur-of-the-moment road trip, they followed it all the way to Washington, D.C.
The Van Zytvelds found a spot along the funeral procession where they watched world leaders solemnly file right past them, where they photographed the caisson bearing the flagged-draped coffin roll toward Kennedy’s funeral service.
On Nov. 22, 1963, “I was teaching first-graders in a public school in Lansing, Mich., when the speech teacher came by and told me about the president,” Carol recalled.
“Like most of America, we stayed close to the TV that weekend,” she said. “After church on Sunday morning, Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. We also learned that the schools would be closed on Monday.”
That’s when John, who was a grad student at Michigan State University, and his wife — both 23 — looked at each other with pretty much the same thing in mind.
“As we had no children yet, we decided to drive to Washington, D.C. and see what we could,” Carol said.
The Van Zytvelds, now Vancouver residents, grabbed some food: a German chocolate cake and a couple of Thermos flasks filled with vegetable soup, John said.
“We threw sleeping bags into the car and headed for D.C.,” Carol said. “We were listening to the radio as we heard the news unfolding. We thought we would try to get in the line going into the Capitol,” where mourners were filing past Kennedy’s casket.
“But later during the night we heard that there were so many people in line that it was doubtful that those in line would even get in before it was closed off at 8 a.m. so we went to Plan B.”
Arriving in Frederick, Md., at about 3 a.m., they pulled into a church parking lot and slept for about two hours. They woke up and headed for the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
“We found a parking place within two blocks, grabbed a quick breakfast, and we were on the sidewalk kitty-corner from the church just after 7 a.m. There were only a few other people there besides a television camera on a large wooden box; we had an excellent view of the church,” Carol said.
More spectators arrived. Large limousines began pulling up in front of them, and dignitaries stepped out. Eventually the sidewalk was packed from the curb to the building front behind them, and down the street as far as they could see. They saw the same thing across the street, and they also saw armed soldiers stationed on the roofs.
“Despite the large numbers, it was quiet, and soon we could hear the clop-clop of horses. Then it got even quieter, as if the whole crowd was holding its breath,” she said.
“The horses came into view, then Black Jack with riding boots in the stirrups backwards to symbolize a fallen rider. Then the caisson with the coffin draped in Stars and Stripes and then the Kennedy family, with Jackie flanked by Bobby and Teddy.”
President Lyndon Johnson walked past. Charles De Gaulle of France, Prince Philip of Britain and Hailie Selassie of Ethiopia and so many other royals and heads of state passed by.
“As they approached the church, the crowd surged forward and I was getting crushed until the television camera man reached down.”
With his assistance, Carol — wearing high heels and a skirt — scrambled to the top of his platform, where she snapped some photographs. It was a much better vantage point than John’s.
“I had three people in front of me,” John said. “I held the camera over my head and had to aim it in the right direction. It was hard holding it steady.”
“There was not a sound until everyone was in the church, and even then people were whispering,” Carol recalled. “It seemed that most of them were staying to see the exodus from the church and the procession to Arlington.
“We decided it was a good time to leave town, so we found our car and got out of there easily. There was no one on the road. Somewhere we stopped for food but we just wanted to get back to Lansing.
“It was a long ride home and we were tired; we had the windows open, the radio on loud and were singing along with it. Somehow we managed to get back and get a few hours sleep, and by 8 a.m. Tuesday were in our respective classrooms,” she said.
“It was one of those ‘I can’t believe we did it!’ experiences.”