Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering a day like none other

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event generally considered to be one of the true watersheds of American history, and one unlike any other in my lifetime. It was to my generation what Pearl Harbor was to my parents and grandparents, and what 9/11 would later be to my own children. The fact that I remember it so vividly today marks me as something of an old-timer, as the percentage of Americans with living memories of JFK continues to decline from year to year, and will henceforth do so much more precipitously as the baby-boom generation ages and gradually departs.   

On November 22, 1963, I was ten years old and a fifth-grade student at Libby C. Booth Elementary School in Reno, Nevada.  I was already a news junkie and history buff even at that age, and I remember hearing Chet Huntley announce the night before, in an almost offhand way, that President Kennedy had arrived in Texas to begin a planned three-day political trip. I overheard the announcement while doing my homework, which on this Thursday evening included a book report due the next morning.  The book I had chosen for this particular assignment was The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, by William L. Shirer, which was essentially an abridged version of his opus magnum, written with younger reading audiences in mind. (Some things don’t change much over the years; exactly twenty years later, my current reading material would include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the same author.)

In the fall of 1963 I lived with my parents and brother Michael in a small rented house located less than half a mile from the school.  (Valerie, my younger sister, would be born the following June, but I did not know this at the time.) Because home was so close, I usually walked home for lunch, which normally consisted of two peanut butter sandwiches.  On that fateful Friday I arrived home at noon, as usual, entering the house through the back door, which faced an alley. Mike, who was 18 months old, ran up to greet me.  I heard urgent-sounding news-anchor voices emanating from the TV set in our living room, but could not hear what they were saying.  Then I heard heavy, quick footsteps coming from that same room.  In a moment my mother appeared, wide-eyed, in the entrance to the kitchen and asked me if I had heard the news.  I shook my head, which seemed to surprise her, and then she pronounced the three most shocking words I have ever heard, before or since:

“President Kennedy’s dead.”

The news hit me like a body blow. John F. Kennedy had been President of the United States for two years, ten months, and two days, in what would prove to be the third-shortest tenure of any Chief Executive of the twentieth century. But he was the first President I remembered well, and his tragically abbreviated administration had been in power for more than one-fourth of my lifetime. So it sort of seemed to me that he had always been there, a vaguely reassuring presence in my life, and now he was suddenly and irretrievably gone. Moreover, Kennedy had been young, and from all outward appearances healthy and vigorous, making him seem almost immortal to me and countless other Americans.  My first fleeting thought was that he had perhaps been felled by a heart attack, but I listened, dazed and bewildered, as my mother told me he had in fact been shot by a sniper while riding in an open car in Dallas, Texas.  

I spent perhaps the next 40 minutes sitting in front of the TV set, eating my sandwiches as Frank McGee anchored the improvised, spur-of-the-moment network coverage for NBC.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was trembling like a leaf, and crying as well.  My mother, who was no Kennedy fan, stood a few feet away and remarked more than once that this was “terrible.”  At one point I got up and paced the floor in that tiny living room, wondering if the Russians were behind the assassination and were about to attack us.  Then it came time to return to school, and I ran part of that short distance, thinking to myself that I just had to remember this date.  (I need not have worried about that potential memory lapse.)

Later it would occur to me that it was 2:00 p.m. in Dallas when my mother told me the news, some 25 minutes after the President’s death was officially confirmed and approximately 90 minutes after he was shot. I have wondered why the school administration made no announcement before lunch, but perhaps they wanted to avoid causing panic in case Kennedy was still alive. When I arrived back at the school, classes had not yet resumed, and my teacher, Mrs. Harrington, was outside on the playground, surrounded by several other children. I ran up to her and said President Kennedy had been assassinated, and she nodded and said she already knew. Mrs. Harrington was visibly upset, but dry-eyed. Not everyone was able to maintain their composure, and I was told later that our principal, Mr. Singleton, was unable to hold back tears. Around this time the flag at the school was lowered to half-staff, and when the school day officially resumed, a live radio broadcast was fed into the classrooms for about 15 minutes or so.

We were let out early that day, at around 3:00 p.m. For the previous couple of hours, Mrs. Harrington had tried valiantly to do what teachers are supposed to do, but nobody, herself included, really felt like doing normal schoolwork. She finally gave up the effort, instead producing a tape recorder and inviting all of us to share whatever was on our minds. Some of the children spoke briefly about the assassination; for my part, I did an impersonation of Mussolini, which in retrospect seems tasteless and inappropriate, but at the time was a well-intentioned – and reasonably successful – attempt to lighten the collective mood by eliciting laughter. (Mrs. Harrington probably kept the recording, but I never heard it again after that day.)

When I returned home, my mother’s first words to me were, “Lyndon Johnson’s President now.” She sent me to a nearby store to pick up the day’s edition of the Reno Evening Gazette, and the line at the cash register was longer and quieter than usual. The store clerk, a middle-aged gentleman who always smiled and greeted me pleasantly whenever I stopped by, was holding a telephone receiver to his ear, apparently listening intently to some kind of news feed, and didn’t say a word as his customers shuffled by, all of them likewise silent as they made their purchases. I paid for the newspaper and left, and to the best of my recollection, this was the last time I stepped outside our house until I returned to school four days later.

Like most Americans, I spent that long and tragic weekend alternately glued to the television set or immersed in a newspaper. I have always loved pomp and pageantry, for which the Kennedy funeral, its attendant sadness notwithstanding, provided the best and most memorable example that I have ever seen. The beat of the muffled drums that paced Kennedy’s funeral procession is everlastingly seared into my memory and still provides a kind of soundtrack to that momentous time, but other enduring impressions have remained with me as well. I remember waking up Saturday morning and greeting Mike as he sat awake in his crib. For a brief moment I had actually forgotten what had happened the day before, until I looked outside and saw that it was raining. Then the shocked realization hit me once again. I learned later that it had also rained in Washington that day, which seemed appropriate: the heavens themselves, as it were, weeping over our fallen prince. I remember my father rushing into my bedroom at midmorning on Sunday to ask if I had overheard the announcement that Oswald had been shot. (I had, and it astonished me as much as it did everyone else.) During the four days between that 22nd and 25th of November, I added several new words to my vocabulary, among them caisson, catafalque, and rotunda. (In fact, until November 22, 1963, I had never even heard the word motorcade.)

Fifty years have now come and gone, the greater part of even a long lifetime, and I don’t believe a day has passed in all that time that I haven’t thought about the Kennedy assassination. I often reflect on Billy Graham's answer when he was asked what had most surprised him about life; "its brevity," he replied. Fifty years seems like it should be such a long time, and yet it isn't. I was a schoolboy then, and now, too quickly it seems, I am on the cusp of old age.

Today my feelings about the man himself are ambivalent. As Presidents go, he was neither our greatest nor our worst, and I agree with the assessment of most historians that he was overrated. In particular, his first year in office was arguably a disaster, a conclusion with which Kennedy himself might agree. For me, JFK has long since ceased to be the larger-than-life hero that he once was, especially during my childhood and teenage years. As a man and as a President, he was clearly and deeply flawed. Yet he continues to be a source of endless fascination, and in my view one of the most complex and interesting men ever to occupy the office. Of all American Presidents, he impresses me as the one I would have most enjoyed knowing personally, given our shared intellectual curiosity, common interest in heroes and history, and appreciation for the majesty and power of words. As one who regards humor as one of the greatest of human virtues, I would have found his wit engaging. He unquestionably had the ability to inspire, to appeal to Americans' better and nobler instincts, and he had a unique connection to young people. But his rampant womanizing, when noted close-up, would have repelled me even more than it does, although Kennedy was famously adept at compartmentalizing his life and doubtless would never have mentioned to me his latest dalliance with a young, nubile Hollywood starlet or White House intern. His health issues evoke in me a mixture of admiration and disgust, the former because he accomplished so much in spite of them, the latter because of the dishonest and conspiratorial manner in which they were hidden from public knowledge in spite of their obvious pertinence to his ability to function as President. 

Kennedy continues to be admired today, not so much for what he accomplished as for what he might – or just as easily might not – have achieved if his life had not been cut short. In 1963, with the Bay of Pigs, Berlin, and the Cuban Missile Crisis behind him, he seemed at last to be hitting his stride as President. That was the year he presented to Congress what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the year the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed and ratified. But it was also the year of the Diem coup, a sordid episode in which the administration was directly implicated. We will never know if Vietnam would have turned out differently if he had lived, or if the civil unrest that marked the balance of that decade would have developed the way it did. My own assessment is that he had the potential either to have been one of the nation’s great Presidents, or to have seen his administration and his place in history destroyed by a sex scandal. Unfortunately, based on all that has come to light in the past 50 years, I believe the latter possibility to be by far the more likely one.