The Beginning of the End
Remembering the assassination of John F. Kennedy
Age carries with it memories, and some are so deeply planted they seem always to be recalling literal yesterday. After 58 years when I think of my learning of the death of John F. Kennedy, I am once again sitting in Mr. Coley’s Journalism class, enjoying a spirited discussion of the infamous NIxon-Kennedy debate in which the media managed to bring out the most sinister aspects of Richard Nixon and seemingly ended his political career.
We students would learn, five years down the road, that history is never fixed in its arc, when Nixon, who, after his 1962 defeat in the California governor’s race, tried to nail shut his own coffin by saying, into a live mic, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.”
We all laughed that Friday afternoon when Dave Richitt quoted that line. The weekend was close at hand and we were all in a jovial mood.
Shortly after Richitt’s comment, as we continued to discuss and debate the power of the media to make and break politicians, we were interrupted by a voice coming from the PA system: “Attention, please. We have information that the Presidential motorcade has been fired on, and that the President and Governor Connalley may have been struck and injured. Please stand by and we will pass along further information when we know it.”
Dead silence fell upon the room for a long moment before someone in the class (I won’t mention his name; he’s had to live with this for 58 years already) blurted out “Nixon’s back in the race!”
Talk about the unforgiving minute. We all laughed again, quite hard, in fact, at the tension-breaking crack, which could only have worked in that moment between PA announcements, the second one yet to come.
Before that second announcement came (and it did come, of course it did), a young woman named Sandy, who had been absent from school that day, walked into the room and made her way to the front, almost to Coley’s desk, her face red and tear streaked, and said, very plainly, “The President is dead.”
There was no followup wisecrack this time. We all just sat there and looked into the void. Mr. Coley pushed his chair toward Sandy and helped her sit down.
Not everyone in the room was a fan of John Kennedy, but most every one of us at least respected him, feeling he had thus far done a remarkably good job of facing down Nikita Kruschev and the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though some of us also blamed him for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy had been baptized by fire already, having seen us to the brink of Armageddon and, having gambled that Kruschev would back down, came away looking heroic to much of the country and the world.
That whole interlude may well have gotten him killed, but none of us had begun our conspiracy theories yet. We were in shock, not so much at the loss of a particular man we all loved (because we didn’t all love him) but at the loss of the President of the United States, a notion that seemed archaic to us a mere 108 years after Abraham Lincoln had been struck down at Ford’s Theater here in DC. The very idea seemed absurd. These were modern times, we thought. “This is the 20th Century for God’s sake! That sort of thing doesn’t happen now!”
We were to soon learn that “that sort of thing” was to be a ritual of our society, and the conspiracy theory industry was born over the next few years, even as Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy were to be felled in a relatively short time, two of them in 1968, a mere five years after JFK was picked off by the improbable three shots — nay, impossible — from a Manlicher Carcano rifle some freak had bought by mail for $19.95, some tool who had very mixed up political views and who had washed out of marksmanship in the US Army because he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, yet using some piece of crap Italian rifle that no Marine could later fire three times in the requisite time window, had managed to sight and kill the President of the United States, a moving target (though admittedly slow-moving) and injure the Governor of Texas.
If you read a little skepticism into that last paragraph, you’re right, but oh well. It was 58 years ago, a few years before The Warren Commission published its findings in one of the most badly assembled works of fiction any amateur could have written.
During the rest of the school day following the official announcement from overhead, and the subsequent funereal class dismissal, wailing and sobbing could be heard out in the halls, and I wandered off and somehow found my way to my car, drove home, looked at my mother, and she at me, and we were both just blank. I retreated to my room and turned on the radio in hopes of an escape into popular music, but it was already too late. Easy listening and somber news breaks would be the order of the day for the rest of the weekend, and on television there was nothing but endless talking heads until on Sunday the body of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was brought, via cortege, to the US Capitol to lie in state briefly. The sound of those drums, that drone of doom, still plays in my head any time I revisit the four days spanning Kennedy’s death and burial. School was closed that Monday. It was a long weekend, and a useless one. There was no escape from the shadow of anarchy and gloom, strange bedfellows. The drumming seemed to continue all weekend, as the body traveled first to the Capitol, then to the National Cathedral, and finally to Arlington Cemetery.
The only break in the overwhelmingly dismal weekend came when, while watching the news on Sunday, as suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was being walked to an arraignment hearing in the basement of the Dallas Police station, local nightclub owner Jack Ruby burst through the guards and newspeople and fired a single shot at Oswald, striking him in the gut. I remember Oswald let out a startled “Oof!” as if he had been punched, then collapsed to the concrete floor, his fate as The Assassin of John Kennedy sealed in that startling and surreal moment, the next in what would become a string of assassinations.
I felt I was going nuts. Actually it was our country. I was only a small part of it.
My best friend and I spent much of the weekend cursing Easy Listening music and the whole reaction, even as we understood it could be no other way and would have to run its course. We got hold of some wine and that helped a little, as we sat in my parents’ basement and indulged in a wide-ranging free-association experiment. We wound up laughing insanely which disturbed my parents a great deal more than usual.
Monday I watched the funeral, the internment, the endless eulogies. It was like being smothered by blankets and pillows. The weight was suffocating. The dark was profound.
We had been broken and we didn’t even know how — or why.
Now in those days I was a rock and roll and rhythm and blues person. I lived and breathed the music, mostly of the 1950s, because, like that character John Milner in the movie American Graffiti, I hated much current music, but so did enough of us that there were radio stations locally which traded in “oldies” (popular music from the previous decade), and again, like Milner, I especially loathed The Beach Boys. “I hate that surfin’ shit!” Milner exclaims at one point in the movie, a moment in which a 28 year old me actually cheered in the movie theater a decade after the Kennedy assassination.
I woke early on the morning of Tuesday, November 26, 1963, to the sound of the accursed Beach Boys on my clock radio, singing their idiotic “Don’t Worry Baby,” and I rejoiced, because the world had come back into my life and I could face the day and never forget how much I hated that damned song except in that one golden moment when the sun came back on and for a while at least, we could get on with whatever it was that passed for living, and lo, it was good.
For a while.