It was a Friday in late November 1963, and my Company, B-10-5 was wrapping up our Basic training at Fort Jackson, Columbia, S.C. The last item on our agenda was the infamous Infiltration Course, and we all waited nervously for our turn to negotiate the course. The fact that we were one of the last groups scheduled only served to enhance our anxiety. Another factor was not being able to see or speak with those who had already had their turn in order to get a sense of just how bad the experience would be.
After waiting all morning, we went for lunch and then resumed our uneasy wait. Of course, there were always one or two stories floating around about a soldier who had panicked in the middle of the course and stood up, only to be riddled by machine gun tracer bullets sailing only 18 inches above the ground. Despite the fact that we knew these tales were just not true, the mind of an 18-year-old found them difficult to erase.
At last, one of the platoon sergeants, Sgt. Miller, walked by and informed us we’d be called in a short while. Finally, we could do this and put it behind us, once and for all.
Only moments later, our Cadre Sergeant Charles W. Griscom, a grizzled veteran whose face bore the leather-like skin of a man who had spent many hours training soldiers in the sun, approached us with a somber-looking face. “Fellas, I’ve got some bad news. President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas,” he said.
As he spoke the last few words, I noticed a tremble in his voice and looked up to see tears slowly running down his face. The news hit each of us like a sledgehammer to the chest.
Twenty minutes later, we went through the previously dreaded course which now did not seem so intimidating. I tried my best to maintain my focus on the course and keep a safe distance from the exploding bunkers, but the horrible thought of our commander-in-chief being assassinated felt like a lead weight in my heart. I fought the overwhelming urge to cry, telling myself that soldiers don’t do that.
I don’t remember much about the actual Infiltration Course, only that when we finished I looked around to see more than one tear-stained face among my fellow soldiers.
The memory of that terrible day will remain in my heart and mind until I take my last breath.