Our Chief Petty Officer led us Coast Guardsmen to a small room under the same steps we'd been patrolling. "You all stay here," he said, leaving us. As soon as he was out of sight, a group of us headed out for a tour of the Capitol. Without a guide, we had no idea where the rotunda was, but we were determined to find it. I took the lead. We knew we were on borrowed time, since k.p. duty, maybe worse, would await us if our Chief Petty Officer beat us back.
A large group of maybe a hundred people turned left into a corridor ahead of us. We followed and walked past people lined up along the right wall. They whispered, "Must be a changing of the guard," as we passed.
Suddenly we were in the rotunda. Behind a velvet rope in the center was the flag-draped casket. We kept moving toward it. A member of the color guard unhooked the rope, thus inviting us to join him behind. Without a clue as to what to do, I led the group around the casket. Passing the President's head, I looked up and saw T.V. cameras above the door leading to the corridor we'd come from. I envisioned some admiral watching T.V. at that very moment and seeing us walking inside the rope and around the casket. As anybody with military experience knows, when in doubt, there is one safe move: salute. Alongside the casket, I smarty executed a "left face," held my spot while I saluted, and executed a "right face," marching away a few steps. Each of our team members behind me did the same maneuver at the same spot. It became clear to the guard on duty that we were going to march off, so he removed the velvet rope for us and we headed back to our room under the stairs. We made it back just before the Chief. It was then that we learned Oswald had been shot several hours earlier.
The following day when JFK's casket left the Capitol on its way to Arlington National Cemetery, our little group was back in D.C. Our stair duty had been given to others, so without specific duties, the Chief let us join the crowd. Even in uniform, we weren't granted access anywhere!
Over the years the memories of that bright November 25, 1963, day led me to look for photos of myself on the steps. I finally went to the JFK Library in Boston. When I appeared with my long story at the front desk, I had to fill out a form for a researcher's card. I took the card upstairs to the library and was greeted with the question, "Which day, Sunday or Monday?" The librarian's second question was, "Which side of the stairs were you standing on?"
In a short while he brought out boxes of photos donated by some of the country's leading newspapers. I spent several hours going through them and culled my choice down to two that captured my memory of that day. One shows me standing on the stairs to the left of Adlai Stevenson, Dean Rusk, and several others who were coming down. The other is the shot taken from the top of the stairs over my head, the flag-draped casket on the carriage below receiving our salute.
Certainly all of us who were alive at the time remember where we were when we heard that JFK had been shot. My most vivid memory is of that sad, historic November Sunday when I had a front row seat, as the nation said farewell to a fellow son of Massachusetts.