Unlike my colleagues here at HA, I have clear, full memories of the events of 50 years ago. Darryl was just three years old at the time. It was years before Lee was born, many years before Carl was a twinkling in anyone’s eye, and possibly even before Roya’s father arrived.
In November 1963 I was 13 years old, an 8th-grader at Heritage Junior High School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Just after we’d gotten back indoors from band practice (we were scheduled to play at halftime of the high school’s football game the next day … a game that was never played), the unimaginable announcement came over the loudspeaker as we were putting away our instruments.
Everything between that moment and arrival at the front door of my house has vanished from my memory. No recollection of gathering up my belongings, of boarding the school bus, of the half-hour ride with dozens of other dazed 12- and 13-year-old kids.
Once I got home, however, along with my entire family I was glued to the TV for days. We were a Huntley-Brinkley family, so we watched Frank McGee on NBC rather than Cronkite’s CBS. We saw President Johnson’s brief speech at Andrews AFB. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald murdered by Jack Ruby. We saw Kennedy lying in state in the Capitol rotunda. We saw the funeral procession, with muffled drums, the caisson, the riderless horse, the international leaders from far and wide, John-John’s salute, the burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Like everyone else, we were in shock. And we were still in shock on Thanksgiving, six days after the assassination. We celebrated (if that’s the appropriate word) the holiday with relatives who lived in the DC suburbs. Over that weekend, we went to Arlington to pay our respects to the President. On that cold, blustery, sunny morning, we filed slowly and silently past the raw, freshly-turned soil of the grave. We had to be careful not to trip over the gas pipe (not yet buried) feeding the eternal flame … not an easy task with tear-filled eyes.
Since I started blogging almost 11 years ago, I’ve written a number of essays about what the assassination of President Kennedy means to me. On my own Peace Tree Farm blog, there’s Forty years (2003), The end of the innocence (2004), and 43 … and 46 (2006). My DailyKos diary on the subject is JFK and the “Where were you when…?” moment (2008). And I wrote The tricks that memory plays two years ago here on HA.
November 22, 1963 remains a central, seminal event in my life. For me, that is the day the Sixties began. The sudden, wrenching events in Dallas led directly to the immense discontinuity between the staid, black-and-white Fifties and the counter-cultural, many-colored Sixties.
How might American and world history have been different if JFK hadn’t been shot? Would there have been a Nixon, a Reagan, a Dubya presidency? Would the Vietnam War have been shorter or less lethal, or even been short-circuited completely? On the other hand, could John Kennedy have strong-armed Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare? We’ll never know, unless we can somehow jump into the alternative universe in which Oswald worked somewhere other than the Texas School Book Depository, or the one in which he stayed in the Soviet Union, or just the one in which he missed his target in Dealey Plaza.
I wish we lived in one of those other universes.