...a reprieve from my Fall River (Massachusetts) draft board in 1963 allowed me enough time to find a slot in the highly coveted six-month Coast Guard Reserve program, nearly impossible to get into in New England. Coast Guard basic training was in Cape May, N.J., and it was there in the last week of boot camp that we received word that our President had been shot and killed. The tiny Coast Guard had no permanent marching or honor guard unit in Washington, D.C. Boot camp was the logical place to find a large group of men who weren't yet assigned to critical functions.
Our two senior classes were driven by bus to Baltimore harbor Coast Guard Base. We lined up according to height and at 6'3", I was among those chosen for Washington. We received white gloves, white leggings (like spats from WW I), white belt, and a rifle with sparkling chrome bayonet.
We boarded buses to take us to the White House, where a small number got off for honor guard duty. Those classmates would march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol with JFK's casket.
The rest of us got off at the Capitol. Other branches of the service joined us on the steps, where we positioned ourselves alternately by service branch. I was about three-quarters of the way up the steps on the left side, so I had a good view of the streets and plaza below, which were empty at the early hour we'd arrived.
An Army captain was in charge, who had no clue which civilians needed a salute. He relied on one of my Coast Guard classmates who'd worked his way through Georgetown Law School as a guide in the Capitol. "That's the Secretary of the Army, salute," my classmate advised, or, "That's a senator, no salute."
Whenever a salute was required, we "presented arms" with our rifles-cum-blades. As more and more limos pulled up dropping off government leaders from all parts of the world, we were doing the up-and-down routine pretty rapidly. After a large group passed us up the stairs, I looked out over the crowd to see that it had grown from a few deep at the curb to a sea of humanity.
A deafening boom came from nearby. It was the beginning of the 21-gun salute from large field cannons in a park on the other side of the Capitol. Soon afterward, horses' hooves rang across the open square. The crowd was silent, as though a sea of cotton had stuffed every crevice and open space. The procession came into view, first the flag bearers, then the horse-drawn carriage carrying the casket, then the riderless horse, prancing sideways. They stopped at the bottom of the stairs where we stood at attention. Members of our honor guard carried the President's body in precision cadence up the stairs, followed by Mrs. Kennedy, her children, President and Mrs. Johnson.
To be continued...