Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

I remember it all in black and white, because that's the way we saw our television broadcasts in 1963.  There is one exception to the memory - Jackie Kennedy's beautiful pink Chanel suit.  Somehow that is the one spot of color on an otherwise stark day.  It wasn't until many years later that the color film shot by Abraham Zapruder was released to the public and we could see the assassination "in living color."

I was fourteen years old, in junior high, as we called it in those days.  We had just gone to our home room after lunch.  The home room teacher was one of the young football coaches, always joking and irreverent.  I remember he walked slowly into the room, his face stunned.  He told us someone had shot the president in downtown Dallas.  With the usual teen-aged attitude, we didn't believe him.  "Yeah, right...good one, Coach Douglas..."  But then he persisted and I noticed his face was ashen, a funny grey, leached of flesh tone.  Gradually, we accepted what he said.  The principal put the sound of the television broadcast on the loudspeaker system.  We sat and listened.

The bell rang and we got up to go to our next class.  It was English and was taught by my favorite teacher.  I sat right in front of his desk.  We hadn't been in there long when Walter Cronkite's voice came on the loudspeaker and announced that President Kennedy was dead and then swallowed a sob.  I remember I began to cry.  One of the boys sitting beside me reached out and awkwardly patted my shoulder.  The teacher held my hand for a moment, fighting his own grief.  Other than the soft crying from some of the girls, the classroom was quiet.  None of us had words.

I don't remember much of the rest of the day.  We stayed in school that afternoon until the bell rang.  I don't remember how I got home.  What I do remember is the silence...not only was our president murdered, he was killed in our home.  The sense of shame and guilt began to build, an awful burden for an adolescent.

Later on, I learned my mother had been having her own adventure.  My older brother was getting married in one week.  We were going to Atlanta for the ceremony.  I was to be a bridesmaid.  Mom had a busy day planned.  She had taken our white satin pumps to a specialty shoe store to be dyed to match our dresses.  So she went blithely off to get her errands accomplished.  She didn't listen to the radio while she drove, so she didn't know what happened.  I can hardly believe it, but she went to several of the fancy stores and didn't learn about the president.  The last errand she had was the shoe store, which happened to be across town, in the Oak Cliff section, on Jefferson street.  It was across the street and down the block from the Texas theater...

My mother, a small, somewhat shy woman, witnessed history.  She saw them capture Lee Harvey Oswald and watched them take him away.  In fact, it was the manager of the shoe store who saw him sneak into the theater and told the management who called the police.  Only then did my mom learn what had happened.

That night and for days to come, all that was on television was news.  It was like what happened on 9/11.  In 1963, we had the major networks and that was about it.

The following Sunday morning, we were getting ready for church and saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live television.  The shame and guilt grew even greater as the television commentators blamed the Dallas Police for Ruby's deed.  There was even an issue of Mad magazine that came out the next month that had a cover about it.  Alfred E. Newman was shown saying "Don't worry, Lee.  The Dallas Police will protect you..."

That Monday schools were closed all over the country.  We watched JFK's funeral services.  I remember Jackie Kennedy, her eyes puffy but dry, walking in the procession at its head.  I knew then that I was looking at courage personified.  She grew in my estimation and stayed there, no matter what her life choices were later.  She had the guts to make those choices.

We left to drive to Atlanta.  Though we knew feelings in the country were high against Dallas and her people, we didn't give it much thought.  We stopped for gas in Alabama.  In those days, they pumped it for you.  Dad got out of the car to stretch his legs.  The attendant came up to him and noticed the Texas plate.  He asked Dad where we came from and Dad said "Dallas."  He refused to sell us any gas and ordered us out of his station.

On the day of the wedding I went to a beauty salon to have my hair done.  Busy with the preparations, my mom dropped me off.  The beautician talked to me while she worked on my hair.  We talked about the wedding.  She asked where we were from and like an idiot I said Dallas.  I am not exaggerating, every woman in that shop, customers and staff alike circled around me and peppered me with questions.  I tried to explain to them that I was in school the day it happened but they didn't listen.

It was a traumatic experience as a young teen-ager, but as an adult, I understand they needed someone to blame for the unimaginable, to explain the unexplainable.

I carried that guilt around for years afterward, like a stone in the middle of my chest.  There must have been something we as a city did to allow such a thing to happen there...Now I know it was happenstance or fate who put JFK in the path of the insignificant little sniper, nothing to do with us. 

That being said, while I do finally believe Oswald was the shooter, I don't know the real reason, the how or the why.  I also don't know Ruby's true motives.  There has been too much corroborated evidence of the mob wanting JFK dead.  Unless we know the real reasons, there will always be doubt, unhealed pain of not knowing.

The facts remain that JFK was the hope for all of us.  He was perceived to be just that.  He was young, vital, handsome, a hero in World War II.  He had saved us all from nuclear war.  He had great plans for the country to end poverty and prejudice.  We were all looking forward to the future, then his plans were aborted with gunshots from the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Lyndon Johnson got most of JFK's legislative agenda through.  Equal rights for African Americans became the law of the land, though the opponents have not gone quietly.  Thank you, JFK, for the dream of equal rights, Medicare, and work programs for the poor.  Thank you, LBJ, for getting them implemented.

At that time in my life, I still had all my relatives and grandparents.  Nobody had died in the family during my lifetime.  The assassination was a loss of innocence for me, the beginning of a cynicism that grew with the events of the rest of the sixties...

Jackie Kennedy's comments about Camelot and her husband's presidency were right on the money.  It was a time of dreams, of youth, beauty, culture, and most of all hope.  And though I wish it otherwise, such a time will never come again.  Our innocence as a nation has been forever lost.

"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot for happily ever aftering, that was known as Camelot."

Rest in peace.


  1. It never occurred to me to wonder why all my memories were in black and white, but of course - that's the only TV we had! I was in school at the time and remember the shocked, silence as we all filed out of the classroom to gather our belongings before being sent home early. Several memories stand out: 3 year old JohnJohn saluting his father's casket and the horse with the boots mounted backwards. My aunt lived in Maryland and I'd visited her often growing up. The first time I went to the eternal flame marking John Kennedy's resting place, it nearly took my breath away to realize my cousin and I had been giggling and rolling down that hill from the Custis-Lee mansion to the place where the grave now was only a few years earlier. Now that place would forever be a place of solemnity and never again the carefree laughter of my youth.

  2. I remember JohnJohn's salute, the riderless horse - Blackjack, and all the dignitaries who followed behind Jackie, Bobby, and Ted in the procession. Sadly when John Jr met his early demise, all I could remember was that little boy who saluted. So much tragedy visited on that family.