50 Years Ago…


I’m sitting in my fifth grade class. The teacher stops talking in mid-sentence because she’s seen the principal appear in the doorway wearing his yellow raincoat and a grim expression. She goes back to see what he wants, and they talk in subdued tones for a couple of minutes. The only thing I overhear is “he was shot in Dallas.”

He leaves to deliver his ponderous message to other classrooms, and she returns to the front of the class to inform us that it’s President Kennedy who’s taken the bullet, and he’s in serious condition. She says she’s going to the office to listen for updates on the radio – that’s what we called our Internet in those days. It’s a bold and reckless move to leave a gang of antsy youngsters unattended, but since presidents don’t exactly get shot every day, we’re uncertain just how rambunctious we’re supposed to be. So out of sheer confusion, we end up being unusually well behaved in her absence.

A few minutes later the teacher returns and announces rather matter-of-factly, “he’s dead’.  She then pays tribute to the fallen leader by reading a passage from a history book. It’s about the assassination of Lincoln, but she substitutes names and other details to create an instantaneous historical account of the most recent assassination . This is followed by a minute of silence, punctuated by her “amen”, and then we ready ourselves for early dismissal.

We don’t know yet that the world has been upended in an instant. We don’t realize to what extent JFK had embodied optimism and altruism and courage and vision.  We just know that our parents have expressed grave misgivings about having a Catholic, whatever that was, in the White House. We don’t foresee that his murder has ushered in a new norm of gun violence, of high-profile public shootings that will include the president’s brother five years later and the president’s alleged killer only three days later.

We can’t predict that guns will become the new anchor for an increasingly psychopathic society, a political hot button, a lightning rod for propaganda and greed and bitter divisiveness , a preferred means of quick distinction and immediate limelight for pathetic losers. Earlier in the year, a classmate had brought his hunting rifle to school one day to show off; and while the teacher reprimanded him, there was no disciplinary action. We have no way of imagining that a day will come when such an incident would have made national news.

For the moment, we just know that we’re leaving school early. As we saunter out to the buses, I hear a wise ass vocally imitating the sound of a bugle blowing Taps. Another wise ass comments to the principal, “are we going to celebrate?” The principal fixes him with an icy glare and replies, “I hope you meant that as a joke, son.” The wise ass hastily responds in the affirmative.

It isn’t until we get home that the day’s events become real for us. And what makes them real is the same thing that makes everything else real: television. It’s the medium the late young president had utilized as no other politician had done before, and none would ever do again.  How ironic that he has become the first president whose assassination is covered by the medium. Over and over we see the tragedy played out in black and white, and after a while it starts to sink in that this is not a test. We’ve already failed the test.

For me, the punch in the gut comes when a reporter is trying to interview a man who had witnessed it all. The man starts to relate what happened, but before he can get very far he just breaks down and starts sobbing. Whereupon the reporter assures him, “that’s quite all right, sir”.

And that’s as real as it gets. Television has given us permission to mourn. To reflect. To recoil in horror. To say that the country will never be the same again.