Friday, November 22, 2013

A Half-Century Old Remembrance

Fifty years ago today I was a carefree young man who had recently received his induction notice to report for duty in the United States Army the middle of December.  It was at the early stages of what would become known as the Viet Nam War - a non-declared military action that eventually took more than 58,000 American lives and caused a rift in this country that lasted for a decade.  However, at that time not many people would have anticipated how it ended up.  Life was good for me.

The morning of November 22, 1963 I was cruising toward Santa Monica in my 1957 Chevrolet convertible, top down, on the way to measure a home for carpet for my father's business - a job I'd held off-and-on between semesters in college and, at that time, prior to joining the Army.  It was a typical Southern California day - perfect, except I couldn't find any music on my radio.  Finally I just stopped pushing buttons and twisting the dial and listened to the palaver that was coming from my dashboard.

Then I heard the message - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.  Soon I realized the traffic around me had gradually begun to slow to well-within the legal limits as people heard the news and began to contemplate what it meant.

Eventually I made my way to the tidy neighborhood in Santa Monica and knocked on the door of the home where I was supposed to measure several rooms.  An elderly gentleman - probably about my age now - slowly opened the door.  He, and his wife standing with him, had tears in their eyes and I could hear the television commentator in the living room behind them speculating about the events in Dallas that morning with a strained note of urgency in his voice.

I offered to reschedule our appointment, recognizing just how distraught they were, but they graciously declined and showed me the rooms to be measured.  For the next half-hour or so I went about my job and they sat, holding hands on the couch in the living room, quietly sobbing as the anxious, confused reports continued to spill out of the old black and white television set.

Finally, just before I finished my work, news came that the president had, indeed, died from an assassin's bullet a few minutes earlier.  I wrapped up my duties, wiping tears from my eyes, and offered my condolences to my customers before I left.

I don't recall much about my drive back across the Los Angeles basin to my home.  My other appointments had been canceled for the day, so I just went home.  I do recall wondering what this tragedy meant, for our country and for me, personally.  Was it just the beginning of an attack on our country? There was much prattle on the radio and television about that possibility at the time.

I wondered what this event would mean to my enlistment in the Army a few weeks hence.  I didn't pay much attention to politics then, but I found myself wondering what kind of president Lyndon Johnson would make, and what kind of a Commander-in-Chief he would be.  I later found out.

I suspect memories of that day and subsequent events will creep into my mind from time to time today, just as they have ever since that day fifty years ago.  Most of us who were alive and beyond the age of ten years old at the time still recall it vividly.  Kennedy's murder, and the subsequent assassinations of his brother, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,  left scars on this country that are still visible today.

Remember, this was a time in our country when we were still tense about the Cuban Missle Crisis a year earlier.  Just a few months later three young voting rights activists were murdered in Mississippi and a few days before I was discharged from the Army two years hence, a cross was burned on the lawn of a black sergeant at Fort Rucker, Alabama - my final duty post deep in the armpit of the South.  These were not good times in our country.

John F. Kennedy's assassination was the beginning of events that changed American society forever, with the advent of the drug culture, riots in large cities across the country and that damnable, divisive Viet Nam War.  Four students were killed by skittish National Guardsmen at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration in 1970.  I still contemplate the 10% of the men of my helicopter flight school class who didn't return from Viet Nam.  Many members of my generation carry still-festering wounds from that time in their lives.

Here's a short, grainy not-quite-six-minute video clip of Walter Cronkite, often described as "the most trusted man in television", delivering the news of Kennedy's death.  It was a sad day for this country...

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Blogger Joe said...

On 11/22/63 I was sitting in my 3rd grade class doing whatever 3rd graders do. Someone from the dreaded "Office" came to the classroom door. Our normally prim and proper teacher Miss LaTour's face fell and crinkled as she heard the news. She stepped into the hallway and returned in approx 3-4 minutes, perfectly composed as usual.

"Children, President Kennedy has been shot. We don't know his exact condition yet. Let's take a minute and pray for him."

We did, even though this was public school. Maybe it helped somehow.

11/22/2013 06:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Mary Ann O'Connell said...

My memory is similar to Joe's. I was in elementary school and we were waiting for the TV to be rolled into the room for our ALM French lesson. We were giddy and anxious to leave for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The boy who was supposed to push the cart in came running in crying and yelling that the President had been shot. We laughed. We thought it was a joke until we saw the teacher's face.

My next memory is of us leaving school early and feeling afraid - there were people out there who could shoot and kill. Until then, that was the work of cowboys, Indians, soldiers and gangsters on TV.

We spent that Thanksgiving in Boston, with my grandparents and the mood there was particularly grim.

And everything was different.

11/22/2013 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger Flo Martin said...

Memories seared in my heart: I was at work at College Testing Service as a scoring machine operator--a part-time job while a student at UCBerkeley. Just before lunch break, someone from the front office came into the big lab where I worked and shared the horrible news that JFK had been shot and killed. Everyone quit working and left the building. My boyfriend at the time was waiting outside. We walked to the Student Union on campus and found seats in front of a tv set (as did hundreds of students in that large lobby area). Some of my close friends eventually found Dave and me and joined us in watching in horror. By evening, we were all emotionally drained. A friend, with whom I still share annual reunions, and I decided to escape. We headed to a local Berkeley movie theater and "turned off" the ugly world outside. Antie Mame with Rosalind Russell helped up. Once back outside the theater after the show, we hugged goodbye. I caught a local bus and returned to my rented room about 5 miles from campus.

Only 3 years before, UC Berkeley had hosted JFK at our football stadium. The excitement and fanfare of the school band playing "Hail to the Chief" as Kennedy entered the stadium brings a smile as I write.

11/22/2013 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger kwahlf said...

That day I was also in school, Lincoln Jr. High in Santa Monica sitting in my 7th grade English class.
The announcement came over the PA system, our principal told us in a very solemn voice that President Kennedy had been shot. His voice broke with his spirit. Our vice principal had to continue, announcing the death of our president.
Our teacher buried her face in her hands, excused herself and walked out to the hallway where she stayed for several minutes before returning to class. I don't remember what we did the rest of that period. We were all in shock, many of us crying myself included.
As in Joe's class, many of us prayed trying to gain comfort at a time nothing made sense.
It did help, yet everything had changed.

I felt that way one more time in my life, on 9/11/2001.

11/22/2013 02:56:00 PM  

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