The chances are that if you were born in 1957 or before, you remember only too well what you were doing on November 22, 1963. I was in the fifth grade at Bushnell Elementary. That afternoon we had gone across the street to the cafeteria we shared with the high school to watch the newest craze in education, a science program broadcast on television! An early prototype of later, slicker shows like Comsos and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, the nerdy local host was teaching us that day about how cold liquid nitrogen really was, freezing a hot dog in a smoking beaker and then shattering it with a hammer.
That was pretty exciting stuff even for elementary kids in Central Florida who had grown up watching rockets clear our horizon headed for space from nearby Cape Canaveral to the east. It was the time of the Cold War and science was seen as the means by which the US would defeat those pesky Soviets once and for all.
Suddenly, the television emcee stopped mid-sentence. He put his hand to his ear to better hear what an unseen prompter was whispering to him. When he looked up, his face was ashen, its smiling demeanor from a mere couple of seconds before vanished.
“We are getting reports that President Kennedy has been hit by a sniper.”
What do you mean the president’s dead?
At that point, I noticed that the teachers who had accompanied us to the lunchroom that day were all standing, faces as grim as the television narrator. The local NBC affiliate announced it was switching to national news, the television was switched off and we were all lined up to walk back across the street to our classrooms.
My 10 year old mind was racing. A sniper? What was that? Wasn’t that some kind of snake? The president has been bitten by a snake? In the middle of Dallas?
By the time we were seated in our classroom, a deathly quiet fell over the ordinarily noisy elementary school halls. Within minutes, a teacher from the sixth grade class came down the hall to our classroom , her eyes red from the tears still trickling down her face. She softly announced, “The President is dead.”
I lost my breath. Dead? What do you mean dead? From a snake bite? Couldn’t they get him to the hospital quickly enough to get him some anti-venom?
It was then that the teacher explained that he’d been shot in the head, we didn’t know who did it, that the Vice-President was OK, had taken the oath of office and was headed back to Washington. And then she said something I’ll never forget: “He was so young.”
School was dismissed for the day. It was a Friday and a long, somber weekend lay ahead. My father and mother came home early from work. And in our kitchen, I saw my Father weep for the first time in my memory. “They’ve killed our President,” he sobbed into my Mother’s shoulder. She also wept silently as she gently rubbed my Father’s heaving back.
My younger brother and I stood there dumbfounded.
What did this mean? How could the President of the United States be killed? Who would do something like that? Why would someone do something like that? I don’t understand.
John John Salutes His Daddy
The slain President had lain in state in the Capitol over the weekend. Thousands of Americans had filed by to pay their respects.
Then, amidst the incredible sense of loss that held America unable to make sense of this murder, we watched in horror on Sunday as the accused slayer of the President was himself shot and killed in the basement of a police department in Dallas. This occurred live as we sat eating Sunday dinner with some family friends.
Suddenly, America had become completely up for grabs. What would happen next? What could any American believe in at this point?
Monday was the day of the funeral. It was a cold day in Central Florida. A friend of my father’s had been killed that weekend, crushed by a truck he was unloading that suddenly rolled back onto him pinning him against the wall. His poor grief stricken widow had no local family to be with her in her loss. So, my Father went with her. He asked me if I wanted to go. I really didn’t. I was already having a difficult time making sense of the world. So I opted to stay home with our Nanny and my baby sister.
All three networks were broadcasting President Kennedy’s funeral procession. The gravity of the occasion was made even starker on our black and white television. All of America watched transfixed as the horse-drawn caisson made its way from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery.
As the procession passed the Kennedy family, John Kennedy, Jr., then only a toddler, stepped forward, dressed in his little suit and saluted his father’s coffin. Behind him a black shrouded stoic Jacquelyn Kennedy stood staring straight ahead surrounded by the grieving Kennedy family. That image is burned into the memory of virtually everyone who saw it and will remain with us for the rest of our lives. It was American stoicism at its finest..
Kennedy would be buried in Arlington amidst the dead from America’s many wars, himself a war hero from WWII even as he had fallen in a hail of bullets from a fellow countryman. An eternal flame would be lit at his resting place which would become a pilgrimage spot for thousands thereafter. At the bottom of a hill lined with white headstones atop which sat an antebellum mansion of a slave owner, an early champion of civil rights would be laid to rest.
The World Simply Changed
From the perspective of this and many other Baby Boomers, the world simply changed that sunny day in Dallas. While the secret details of John Kennedy’s personal life exposed since his death have revealed a less than savory individual character, his presidency was a time of great hope for America. Under Kennedy, we had stared down the Russians over Cuba. The nuclear bombs which we Floridians knew only too well were a mere 30 minutes away were dismantled and removed. America was already well on its way to the moon, the many launches from nearby Cape Canaveral visible on our horizon in Central Florida within seconds of lift-off.
Kennedy’s presidency offered us hope that the end of segregation in the Jim Crow South was coming and that the long, expensive Cold War with the Soviets might even be brought to an end. Jackie Kennedy, the President’s stunning First Lady, had invited American television crews into the White House for a tour, signaling an openness of our government and its willingness to engage the average American.
All of those hopes and dreamed ended that day in Dallas.
What we had no way of knowing as we watched John Kennedy laid to rest was that within the next five years his own brother, Robert, would follow him to Arlington Cemetery, another victim of an assassin’s bullet. We couldn’t have predicted that Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the movement to actualize Kennedy’s dream that African-Americans be treated as first class citizens, would also fall to an assassin’s bullet. My aging grandfather would put down his morning newspaper and mournfully shake his head proclaiming “In America we stop people with ballots, not bullets.”
But that America was dying along with its leaders. In its place would come an uglier, more cynical America in which brutal force and deception would become the currency of international relations and cynical ad hominem advertising would become the currency of selecting our leaders.
The latter would become clear by the next election when a little girl plucking daisy petals would be overshadowed by a mushroom cloud in Lyndon Johnson’s infamous and highly effective election eve commercial. It would reach its maturity in the 1980 election when Richard Nixon’s subtly racist Southern Strategy would metastasize into the raw racism of George HW Bush’s Willie Horton ads. And that cynicism nears its apotheosis in the current circus purporting to be a Presidential election in which the unabashed xenophobia and religious extremism that Kennedy had fought so hard to restrain have come screaming out of the closet and into the television studios.
We had no way of knowing that JFK’s successors would quickly rescind Kennedy’s plan to gradually withdraw from Southeast Asia and would instead expand US military involvement there into a bloody, protracted and demoralizing undeclared war. Before it was over, Vietnam would mortally wound America’s Camelot era optimism and poison its democratic soul. It would leave America with an open, festering wound on our national psyche that has not healed despite desperate, costly and largely unsuccessful attempts to exorcise the demons of Vietnam in places named Grenada, El Salvador, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
We had lost our ability to trust one another
For Baby Boomers who had been raised in an optimistic matrix in which anything was possible - even the sky was no longer the limit with our space program - Kennedy’s assassination marked the end of that dream. No President had been assassinated in the living memory of the vast majority of Americans (William McKinley was the last previous assassination in 1901) and the very notion that a president could be killed was virtually unthinkable in 1963.
“Who would do such a thing?“ we thought.
The answer to that question would prove even more troubling. While the Warren Commission appointed by Congress and led by the sitting Chief Justice of the SCOTUS revealed a carefully tailored consensus report that cited Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole perpetrator of the event, rumors of conspiracy arose almost immediately and continue to hold varying levels of currency among skeptical Americans.
Was Kennedy the target of a Mafia hit? Did a cabal of conservative corporate leaders who saw their interests in danger from the Kennedy social and economic programs act to protect those interests by getting rid of the threat? Had Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev managed to avenge their humiliating loss in the Cuban Missile Crisis by neutralizing their American nemesis?
The fact that such conspiracy theories held any traction at all among Americans points toward the greatest casualty of November 22, 1963. In that hail of bullets in Dallas we Americans had lost our ability to trust one another and our own government. And no one experienced this casualty more than Baby Boomers just beginning to come of age.
I have often wondered what our nation and the world might look like had Kennedy survived that awful day in Dallas. I would like to believe the bloodbaths of Vietnam and Selma might have been avoided. I would like to believe that the cynicism which has poisoned the very soul of this once great nation would not have proven victorious.
Deep in my soul there is still that spark of innocent hope and optimism that a 10 year old Baby Boomer once felt as he watched rockets soar into space across the horizon and heard moving speeches offered by a brilliant and capable president who was not afraid to call Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” How might things have been different had John Kennedy lived?
My heart aches I recall the events of those dark days of November so many years ago. And my soul grieves this day as I think about what might have been but never was.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)