Seems like the American media never miss an opportunity to take a tragedy and embellish upon it for later publication. Obligatory markers are a priority, and sadly, JFK’s Assassination is no exception.
This is the fiftieth anniversary; the media’s obsession and fascination with unanswered questions, conspiracy theories and the renewed cold war climate has again spun its web around our hearts, luring us into a personal time capsule to endure another painful return voyage.
My journey always begins on the entrance steps of one junior high school in the Bay Area; we were seventh grade “scrubs”, so enjoying the sunny, mid-day lunchtime break was just another Friday with my friends at our usual spot. I remember no faces, just a mass of chatter spilling out of the cafeteria, spreading the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
The president would want us to go on…
How did my gym teacher know what JFK would want? None of us sitting there in our gym clothes were able to fully comprehend, let alone focus, on the class requirements before us. The few minutes between the principal’s announcement in the cafeteria and the beginning of fourth period was certainly not long enough for any of this horror to sink in; we were still in disbelief and few details were known. Our president assassinated? In our own country? In Vice President Johnson’s Texas? How were we supposed to run laps and play a game as though nothing had happened?
Until that noon hour, we students were an innocent but idealistic bunch, having been inoculated two years before with the Ask Not serum:
Ask not what your country can do for you;
Ask what you can do for your country.
JFK’s quote hung in our school’s front showcase. Many of us were planning to join the Peace Corps when we were eligible; or, at the very least, become teachers and serve the needs of children on our own soil.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43, the youngest man and the first Catholic to take the oath of office; handsome and somewhat boyish charm aside, he was also a WWII Navy Veteran. Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? It was within our grasp because this was America, where anything was possible if one believed and envisioned it so. JFK’s youthful exuberance represented all that was historic and bold and fresh about the American Dream.
Mom had the television on when I came home from school. The black and white screen repeated the same footage all evening:
There was the young President and First Lady walking along the airstrip fencing, shaking hands and greeting loving well wishers; the handsome couple smiling and waving in a motorcade; and then the distortion of confusion in a shaking, hand-held camera, capturing the indefinable moment.
News reels would always follow with photos of people crying in the street, discarded roses lying on the floor of an abandoned limousine, and eventually, Walter Cronkite’s tearing up and wiping his glasses on camera as he completed the official pronouncement that President Kennedy had died.
In between the broadcasts, we reminisced: Mom remarked how JFK had “pardoned” the traditional White House Thanksgiving turkeys just a couple of days earlier; what had been a light-hearted presidential photo op now, in hindsight, seemed eerily foreboding; our president had received no such pardon.
Grasping for some comfort, Mom and we girls took turns leafing through the magazines stacked on the fireplace wall shelves; midst the keepsake newsprint inserts from the weddings of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Margaret Truman were some Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and other periodicals with Jackie on the cover; color photos of a loving mother with her two darling little ones were rampant, as was the genteel coverage about her maternal fragility. Jackie had been plagued by difficult pregnancies; she had recently lost their third child. Any woman’s magazine worth its salt had taken a turn extolling the virtues of this young, refined and well-educated thirty-something who had become our youngest First Lady.
Like many families, we had accepted all the hype and the story lines, including the media’s making of a pill box styled Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. This was the era when Washington as well as Hollywood deleted any scandals from the story lines that might implicate repetitive or rampant undignified behavior by our government leaders; the Kennedy Administration was no different.
I remember the initial telecast of asides from grief-stricken public figures. Ladybird Johnson mistakenly remarked that the most terrible travesty was that the assassination had occurred in her beloved Texas. She later apologized for this faux pas, clarifying that the most terrible travesty was the loss of our beloved president.
The swearing in of Lyndon Johnson by necessity took place on Air Force One. The new widow insisted on attending, so the ceremony was delayed until Jackie’s arrival. The historic snapshot conveyed a grief-stricken assembly of figures; the viewers’ eyes eventually focused on the blood-stained skirt in the foreground. Some reports suggested that aides had encouraged Jackie to change her clothes for the historic ceremony, but Jackie had refused. She reportedly responded, “I want them to see what they did to Jack”.
I had much admired Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as First Lady, but her words struck me to the core. I absorbed them completely. I waited for some type of explanation or retraction, but I never heard the First Lady apologize for that which in my sensitivity was a deeply punitive remark.
We prepared ourselves for the weekend’s continual coverage; maybe new reports would offer some of the missing details. We were glued to the screen the entire morning when we witnessed in real time Jack Ruby walking up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shooting him at close range.
Dear God! What must we endure next?
We were all in a daze; even the solemnity of a four day weekend of national mourning didn’t close the door on the restlessness or fear inspired by these two indescribable acts.
Images…the boots facing backward in the stirrups, the black bunting across the White House windows, the little guy saluting his father’s caisson… I had expected historic precedence to console… now, one man’s visions had been diminished to an eternal flame, extinguishing a fountain of youthful promise.
There was little consolation from the Warren Report. I quickly caught the cynical virus from the adults. I couldn’t then and still can’t break away from my initial skepticism that the historical summation by the Warren Commission was a political assessment rather than conclusive of either guilt or trajectory findings. The report at best rubbed salt in our intellectual wounds; few Americans accepted its findings as convincing; and the government’s decision to seal the documents for fifty years fed our doubts and fueled every conspiracy theory that later arose.
Some years I managed to set the painful memories of November on the back burner. But American journalism’s insistence on commemorating a Camelot that never really existed made forgetting the story’s tragic ending impossible. They stirred the pot enough so to keep us somber and close to a seems like just yesterday awareness.
Not that we needed any reminders. Poignant images presented themselves with or without the help of the media; they were permanently embedded in our common psyche. Each November 22nd , we who were old enough to remember that day recalled where we were… and when we heard… and how we as a country mourned.
I do not exaggerate when I state that a part of my own emotional maturity was frozen in place on that blackest of Fridays; but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that JFK’s death was only partially to blame; my brother’s nervous breakdown in September had already altered some of the family dynamics.
Neither my brother’s vulnerability nor JFK’s death would fade away very quickly. From my eleven year old eyes, I wasn’t sure of anything that autumn of ’63 except that my immediate future held more sorrowful weeks ahead. I sought escape where I could, and burrowed even deeper into my school studies, managing to accomplish a fair amount of distance during waking hours before going to bed and shutting myself away from my family’s personal heartache.
Historic events come and go; unfortunately, the more dramatic ones languish much longer than we wish, lurking in the shadows like smears of glue that have yet to dry clear, leaving unwanted traces marring an otherwise precious entry in our life’s scrapbook…