Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Where Were You?

For any American older than 60 years of age, where you were early in the afternoon (Eastern time) on Friday, November 22, 1963, is emblazoned in your memory.  At 12:30 p.m. (Central time) in Dallas, Texas, Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy.  Oswald also shot and wounded Texas Governor John Connally, who was riding in the limo in front of the president, along with their wives.

I was in the fifth grade in St. Wendelin School, in the Carrick neighborhood of Pittsburgh, in room 15.  We had just returned from lunch.  The principal, Sister Maria, burst into our room and asked our teacher, Sister Cecilia, to turn on the black-and-white tv high up on the wall.  (Our classroom was the only one to have a tv on the third floor of the old building.)  We 40 or so children, and the two sisters, sat transfixed as we heard the news of the shootings, and then the formal announcement of the death of the president.

So much has been written about this tragic assassination over the decades.  Did Oswald act alone, shooting from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building?  Was there a conspiracy and other shooters?  How many bullets?  Could it have been prevented?   What would have happened if Kennedy had not been killed?  What decisions would he have made about Vietnam?  civil rights?  nuclear weapons?  relations with the Soviet Union?

All of those questions, and many more, would follow.  But at the moment the 35th president of the United States was killed, our country, and the world, grieved and grieved terribly.  The youth and vigor of this 46 year old (although later we would learn that his energy was only propped up with drugs) reflected a "young" country and its hopes and dreams.  So many of those hopes and dreams died with Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

And the other events of those four days in November.  On Sunday, November 24, I vividly remember sitting in the kitchen of our home in Baldwin Borough.  From the small table I could see the tv on in our "play room" down the hall.  It was Sunday morning, we had just come back from church, and the networks were showing live the transfer of Oswald from the city jail to the county jail.  Without warning Jack Ruby, the owner of a strip joint in Dallas, bursts past the beefy Dallas policemen, sticks a .38 revolver in Oswald's gut, and kills him.  Millions of viewers, like me, saw a murder in real time.  

Then there were the funeral processions, first to the Capital for viewing, then to St. Matthew's Cathedral, then to the national cemetery across the Potomac River.  Grieving Jacqueline Kennedy, all in black.  The two children, 6 year old Caroline and 3 year old "John-John".  The little boy's salute to his father's casket.  The riderless horse.   The new president, Lyndon Johnson, sworn in on Air Force One an hour after the shooting, who looked so understandably uncomfortable throughout that weekend.

The assassination of JFK marked a decade of violence for our country.  Escalation and war in Vietnam, with over 58,000 Americans dead and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.  The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.  Race riots.  War protests.  Social turmoil.  In my mind, the "Sixties" as a decade were not simply from 1/1/1960 to 12/31/1969, but rather from 11/22/1963 until the resignation of the disgraced 37th president of the U.S., Richard Nixon, on 8/9/1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  

Countries move on.  We move on.  The 50th anniversary remembrances do not have the power of the actual event, and perhaps they should not.  We cannot bring back what is lost, and what might have been.

May the soul of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and all the faithful departed, rest in peace.