Saturday, November 22, 2008

45 Years Ago Today: My Personal Reminiscence of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

On the 30th anniversary of the assassination, I wrote my reminisences of that terrible day. They are below. This is the first time they have ever been published anywhere.

November 22, 1993
Thirty years ago this morning, I was chasing a badminton bird in the men's gymnasium at San Jose City College, in San Jose, California, the rubber soles of my tennis shoes squeaking on the lacquered wooden floor. I was in my physical education class. Soon, the coach would blow his whistle and we would head for the showers.

It was Friday, and I was looking forward to the weekend and the short, three day week before Thanksgiving that would follow. After showering, I put on my narrow, striped tie. For some reason I had felt like dressing up on that day, and wore a brand new tie I had just bought, a rep tie. I bought it because it reminded me of the ties our young President John F. Kennedy wore. Friday, November 22, was the first time I had a chance to wear it.

It was eleven o'clock when I walked from the gym to the science building for my Chemistry lecture class. I say it was my "lecture" class, because Chemistry always involved two classes taken in tandem: lecture and laboratory. We were to have a lecture on organic chemistry this Friday morning, studying the molecular structure and chemical formulae of various hydrocarbons.

Just as I reached the door of the science building, a classmate from a previous semester approached me. He was a typical student of the day, his black hair cut in a flattop, the bristles of which were pomaded to stand straight up. "Hey," he called to me, "Did you hear that Kennedy has been shot?"

I froze in dread and disbelief. I knew this guy was a "goof-off," someone who was rarely serious and not in the habit of displaying good taste in his humor. I thought it was some kind of sick joke. "Yeah," he continued, "I heard two students talking. One said to the other, 'Did you hear that Kennedy's been shot?' Then his friend smiled and said, 'Isn't it GREAT?'" The preppie fool then smiled big, showing his white teeth. I interpreted his smile to mean that he agreed with the sentiment that it would be great if someone had indeed shot the President of the United States.

I did not return his smile. I may have mumbled something about having to get to Chemistry, but I don't remember. I do remember thinking that if this were a joke, it was a very sick joke, indeed.

When I sat down in the classroom, other students were asking each other if the rumor was true. Then our teacher, a bespectacled blondish man of about fifty, emerged from his office and told the assembled class the news. "It's on the news. Kennedy was shot by a sniper in Dallas and the word from the State Department is that he's dead." We were stunned. My immediate emotion was one of burning hate for the preppie who had laughed about it in the corridor. I wanted to go find him and pummel his smiling face into pulp.

Then in an amazingly blatant display of bad taste and irreverence, the Chemistry teacher, who did not seem at all disheartened by this turn of events, told us to take out our notebooks. We were going to have lecture as planned, as there were many formulae to learn. That I even sat there for that hour numbly copying molecular structures off the blackboard still amazes me. But I was only nineteen. Today I would have risen out of my seat, said, "I for one do not feel like listening to a lecture in the aftermath of such a tragedy. I'm leaving, and I suggest all of you other students go with me."

My next class was Biblical Literature, which was held in the drama building. My teacher, whose name was Christian, was a portly gentleman with a goatee and a head shaved almost to peach fuzz. As the students sat down, he stood before us with wet eyes and a tear-stained face. I still remember what he said, three decades later: "In light of what's happened, I for one don’t really feel like discussing simile and metaphor, and I think the best thing to do is to just dismiss the class." Dr. Christian was a good man. I still remember a story he told us in that class, and I will digress to record it now.

While in college, Christian majored in religious studies, and came across a religious painting of a deer with a cross on its head. Christian and his roommate did extensive research in the library to learn the significance of this image. They finally found an obscure reference book which identified the deer as the symbol of Saint Thomas.

They took the painting to their apartment and proudly hung it in their small living room, confident that their earnest research had uncovered some arcane and ancient religious icon. Later their old gray-haired landlady came by to collect the rent. She took one look at the painting and exclaimed, "Oh! Saint Thomas!"

That class was a pleasant one for me. We used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for a textbook, and for the first time in my life, I read the Bible. I remember reading the Song of Diana and Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon and the Book of Job. We studied the Bible as literature, for its poetic value, and I learned Biblical passages that are with me still. I loved Ecclesiastes, with its morose outlook on life and the hereafter, as its mood often matched my own.

After Dr. Christian dismissed the class, I wandered around the campus until my Psychology class met. I believe the teacher's name was Dr. Blum. He too, made a few short remarks and told us that the college administration had decided to dismiss all further classes for the day. I wandered towards the parking lot in a kind of stupor, then sat down on a bench near the administration building beside a young woman student. I noticed that her face was also tear-stained and flushed with grief. She was listening to a newscast on a portable radio. Walter Cronkite was describing the awful events, finally concluding his newscast with a grave and somber remark: "President Kennedy is dead." The finality of that shocked me to my core, and I stood up and stumbled in the direction of my first car, a 1951 DeSoto, waves of grief and despair washing over me.

As I came in the door to our home on Foxworthy Avenue in San Jose, my father and mother were watching the televised newscast. My father asked me in a very serious voice, "Have you heard the news?"

"Yeah, I heard," I said, and walked past them. My father called after me, "It's pretty damned rotten when they have to bring the President home in a box!"

I went into my room and took off my "Kennedy tie." I put it away in a drawer. I never wore it again.

Wednesday, November 24, 1993
Tonight there were a couple of television programs remembering President Kennedy. They were a collage of mostly black and white news reels of various events in his life, campaign speeches, interviews, news conferences, his inaugural address. His wife Jacqueline, or Jacky as we knew her, was often at his side. He was extraordinarily handsome and she was exquisitely beautiful. They were surely the best looking couple to ever represent this country as Chief Executive and First Lady.

The interviews, the candid shots of the President making serious comments about the hostile world of 1960, or joking personably in some endearing, self-deprecating manner, served well to remind us of how alive, vital and dynamic this young President was. How very proud we were of him, how much we believed in him! These reminders are necessary to make us realize just how much we lost when he died, to allow us once again to gauge the depths of the massive wound in our national soul.

Inevitably, one of these programs moved chronologically to the events in Dallas of November 22, 1963. Film footage from a car in the motorcade, a cheerful voice describing the throngs of well wishers lining the streets of Dallas, to the turn onto Elm Street by the Texas School Book Depository. Then the people crouching on the grass, the worried announcer exclaiming that "apparently, something has happened in the motorcade." We move to the scene of the Presidential limousine parked outside Parkland Hospital, emptied of its occupants and guarded by secret service agents.

The next scene is of news announcers listening to a telephone and repeating the words they were hearing from the Associated Press: "President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time of bullet wounds."

The next scene began to dissolve the thirty years that have passed in my life. I was seeing a horrific scene I last viewed sitting beside my father in our living room on the evening of November 22, 1963, when I watched it live. Air Force One had landed in Washington, and a large freight elevator platform was being lowered from the side of the plane. Inside the enclosed platform a crowd of secret service agents clutched the handles of a black coffin. Jacky in her pillbox hat could be clearly seen standing behind the coffin.

The men carried the coffin down from the platform onto the tarmac, with Jacky following behind. It was night. The television announcer described the scene, but his words were hardly necessary. There was the chilling realization that the black box held the cold and stiffening body of the murdered President. My emotions ran the gamut from grief, shock, outrage, and a cold and consuming hatred for his assassin. Then newly sworn President Johnson walked arm in arm with his wife to a semi-circle of microphone stands where he asked "for your help, and God's."

Oswald! He was exactly as Jack Ruby described him, "a nothing, a complete zero." He stole the youthful President away from the American people, not for any political ideology, but merely to make his otherwise worthless, invisible existence preeminent in the minds of everyone on earth. He would go to his grave despised and hated, but no longer unknown. Now, everyone on earth, for generations to come, would know his name, just as they know the names of Judas Iscariot, Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, and Bruno Richard Hauptman.

Another collage of poignant images followed. Jacky and her young daughter Caroline, hand in hand, walking to the flag-draped coffin, kneeling beside it, touching the flag. The somber parade through Washington, the caisson bearing the coffin, the riderless horse. John Jr., two years old, saluting the passing coffin. The streets filled with marching military in dress uniforms, followed by many civilian dignitaries. Jacky, her eyes shining behind a black lace veil.

A final scene showed the funeral party in Arlington Cemetery. The black, shiny coffin sits on supports over the open grave, and at its foot, the metal cup of what will be the eternal flame, as yet unlit. Jacky stands before it, and on her right stands Robert Kennedy. The flame is lit and erupts with a rushing sound. Shortly thereafter, not shown in this film, the coffin would be lowered into the open grave.

Tonight, thirty years later, John Kennedy's flame still burns.

November 22, 2008: Update. Make that 45 years.

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