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.


  1. Hello POP,

    I am one of those kids who was making paper cutouts of Pilgrims and Turkeys, in anticipation of Thanksgiving, and, I will never forget my usually upbeat 4th grade teacher, walk into the classroom with a serious look on his face and then telling us what had happened.

    That night on the CBS evening news, I saw Walter Conkrite slowly remove his glasses and shed a tear when recalling the facts about the Assassination–something which has always remained in my memory.

    I don’t know if I would ever want to go back to those days, but soon after I became aware of the violence from guns that regularly helped assuage the anger of those who opposed political agenda’s. I also saw Jack Ruby, on live television as he shot and killed Oswald. And later, saw both Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, become the victims of assassins.

    I don’t know if gun violence was any less common in those days–existing in the streets of big cities perhaps–so different from my Wisconsin farm boy environment, but I know that in the years since, those who would have engaged in fist fights, or shrunk from the cruelty of bullies, somehow began to wield ballistic weapons to seek their personal revenge–even against nothing more than a differing ideology or theology.

    We all know that there is all too much violence in the world today, and even if we refuse to restrict the ownership of firearms, we should all take note of the terrible damage they can do when used against real or imagined enemies.

    Making sure they are more difficult to purchase online or at gun shows by those who shouldn’t have them, does not prevent any sane and responsible person from buying one, and therefore does not deny any of our constitutional rights.
    So, what is all the fuss really about??–even from the NRA?

  2. Guns are used so people can kill or maim you from afar. They are not the only weapon, just the chicken one.

    Knifings happen up close and personal. Try to knife the person who cut you off from your vehicle. Guns work better.

    I think we need to look at WHY people cross that line of hurting/killing someone else. Then the weapon of choice comes into play.

    4 year old Lilly Garcia sitting in the back of daddy’s car with 6 year old brother on New Mexico. Daddy starts engaging with a driver who cut him off. Both men take turns cutting each other off. Finally the other driver pumps 4 bullets into daddy’s car, killing Lilly. Her brother unharmed now has this image burned into his brain sitting next to his dead sister.

    Dad, was it worth it? Other driver you don’t have an off switch for your bad ass?

    What is the problem here? You think if bad ass didn’t have or own a gun he would never kill someone else? buzzzzzzzz!!! WRONG.

    People have to realize that there are sick killers out there who would kill you dead with ANY weapon. Once we digest that, we can begin to resolve the problem correctly.

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