by Susan Cooper

I first saw the White House on November 22, 1963, a day of bright fall sunshine and a clear blue sky. I was part of a crowd under the trees across the street, looking up at the flag which had just been lowered to half-mast over the White House roof, because President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot dead.

It wasn’t a crowd like any I had ever seen. It did nothing; it simply stood there. At intervals, swift black limousines swung in through the White House gates; sometimes a small group of people drifted together round someone with a portable radio. But nobody said a word. They didn’t look at one another; they didn’t look at anything – except, sometimes, the flag. You could see the heads tilting towards it almost furtively for a quick glance, over and over again, as if trying to convince themselves that the next time they looked, it would be flying normally. They wanted nothing else, and they knew they wouldn’t get even that; they simply seemed to feel that they ought to be there. So they stood together in silence, more and more gathering each moment, as the last leaves fell around them from the trees.

Many years later, I was invited to a party at the White House at the time of the annual Kennedy Center Honors, because two dear friends of mine were being given them. It was a very different day, and I’m not sure what I’ve done with my signed photograph of the president shaking hands with me, because I didn’t – and don’t – share his politics. (No, I am not going to tell you who he was.)

We guests all had escorts from the various branches of the military, but instead of their own handsome dress uniforms they wore a sort of musical comedy uniform that Richard Nixon had designed for them when he was President. Our officer-escort had an amazingly awful blue jacket with yellow lapels.

It was Christmas, and the White House was full of lights and flowers and glittering chandeliers, with a lot of tall magical Christmas trees hung with shimmering white. The ladies’ rest room was pretty fancy too. We were all in evening dress, an orchestra was playing, the food and drink were splendid, and it was a very nice party.

But I remember that silent outdoor crowd much more clearly, and I always shall.

©2008 Susan Cooper; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance