THE fact that my funeral is supposed to be just around the corner conjures up memories of other celebrations of death, especially this week. Sixty-five years ago yesterday on 22nd November, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Millions of people watched the funeral on television. Not me. I was there…accidentally, of course.

In 1963 I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman at Georgetown University in Washington DC. On the day of the funeral I rose early, dressed in my best black suit and tie, hailed a number 30 bus at the University front gates, paid the American equivalent of ‘one and six’ and set off to St Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown DC, a short distance from the White House.

Thousands of other people had the same idea – we would be watching history – and crowds blocked the area,. I was trapped behind a swarm of beehive hairdos blocking my view and realised immediately I’d made a mistake. I could see nothing. No history for me.

The funeral wouldn’t start for a few hours, so I had time to duck and dive my way around the handbags and glad rags of other people. Eventually I ended up smack in front of the Cathedral. I couldn’t get to the massive doors because, like most Catholic churches, St Matthews had a plaza in front where members of the congregation could slowly promenade up and down after the service to see who else was there and be seen to be a ‘good Catholic’ and network and gossip.

On this occasion the plaza was cordoned off by the FBI, MI-6 and every other set of initials who were protecting a Head of State. In front of the cordon and on the ‘people’s side’ of the plaza was a footpath and a grassy knoll leading to the road – a perfect place and height to view the events. I decided it was the best seat in town, other than being on a pew inside the Cathedral.

I sat down and struck up a conversation with the man next to me. He was a few years older with rosy cheeks and well scrubbed, like he belonged to some institution. When I asked how he managed to get such a perfect vantage point to watch the funeral march, he replied that he had just walked out the front door of the Cathedral and explained that he was a curate there.

We chatted about his work for half an hour and then I asked why he was outside on the grassy knoll and not inside assisting at the service. “Well, I’ve got an invite, but I don’t feel at ease with the great and the good. I prefer to watch from here,” and he reached in his pocked and produced the good news – a beautifully hand crafted, embossed card, edged in black with an image of President Kennedy and details of the funeral service plus the words ‘Please enter the Cathedral through the main front door.’

“I’m just a little bit shy,’ he explained. “Well, I’m not,’ I assured him and asked if he would mind giving me his seat inside. He was happy with that and gave me the invite.

We stood up to watch the funeral marchers arrive with a simple wooden cart drawn by horses with one lone horse tethered behind, his stirrup facing backwards to show that his rider had been killed.

Behind the horse Jacqueline Kennedy walked slowly, covered in a black veil and supported on each side by Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. Behind them marched a throng of almost every head of state in the world, including Prince Phillip representing the Queen, de Gaulle and Khrushchev. The marchers also included several American politicians with President Lyndon Johnson and the man Kennedy had defeated in the Presidential election, former Vice President Richard Nixon.

After the dignitaries had entered the Cathedral, I said ‘goodbye’ to my friendly curate, stepped up to the security cordon, produced ‘my’ invite and joined the queue for the funeral mass. When the service finished we walked into the sunshine of that cold November day and strolled around the plaza for some time.

Here was every powerful person in the world without their bodyguards, talking and shaking hands as though they at a village fete; and here was I in the thick of it.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt full of energy, like a new-born lamb that stands up for the first time on awkward, shaky legs and starts to walk by kicking his heels in the air, lurching and lunging. The world was my playground for a few minutes.

I felt a bit giddy and spun on my heels in the middle of this crowd when I heard a loud ‘whack’ that echoed around the plaza full of all these quiet people. The pain came later.

In my unbridled enthusiasm I had turned sharply and smashed my forehead into the forehead of a man standing behind me.

I took a step back, put my hand to my head in shame and was just about to apologise to the mourner I had nearly knocked out. Then I stopped myself and thought: ‘No, I’m not going to apologise for doing this because I’m probably the only person in the world who has head-butted Richard Nixon.’