3/16/2009

November 22, 1963

In common with most other members of my particular generation, many of the strongest memories that I have retained from my childhood are connected to the widespread grief that resulted from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, which happened when I was ten years old. On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, the pattern of daily life across America and throughout the world was fearfully ruptured by a few seconds of fatal gunfire that ripped across Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, and struck the head of the handsome President, who was riding with his wife in a motorcade.

I first heard of the assassination during lunch at my elementary school. One of the other students had a portable radio, and we all crowded around it, listening intently as an announcer declared, in a distressed voice, that President Kennedy had been killed by a sniper. We all were frightened by the news that we were hearing, and we did not know what to think. How could such a dreadful thing happen to the President? Why would anyone want to kill him? What was going to happen next? It was strange and confusing and nightmarish, as if life itself had violently and unaccountably taken a wrong turn.

After lunch we went back to our classroom. Most of us were quiet as we took our seats, and our teacher, one of the few instructors that I actually liked, was nervous and tearful. She nearly lost her temper when she heard one student, a contrary boy with a vexing personality, loudly express his gladness in regard to President Kennedy being killed. Our teacher quickly took the boy outside and spoke sharply to him for several minutes while the rest of us waited. When they returned, the boy had a sullen expression on his face and was mute for the remainder of the day.

When I came home from school later that afternoon, my mother was looking at our television, watching the latest newscast. Her face was ashen and distraught as she viewed the incoming reports. Although my mother was not an American, she had long maintained an honest liking for John F. Kennedy, and she had happily followed his progress as President of the United States. Now he was gone forever, coldly shot down at the age of forty-six. My mother, a native of the United Kingdom, was anguished by the loss of the public figure that she had esteemed above all others. For her, it was an especially painful experience.

To my British mother, as to millions of others in the United States and abroad, John F. Kennedy had represented a principled outlook that was rare in American politics. She had seen him as an advocate of courage, reason, fairness, and tolerance, sterling qualities that strongly appealed to her British sensibilities. In 1963 I was too young to be able to form a mature judgment of either John F. Kennedy or his brief performance as President, but I was aware that he seemed different. He appeared to be more youthful, more active, more eloquent, and more trustworthy than other leaders. The favorable elements of his character may have been illusory to some degree, as frequently is the case with public figures, but they inspired people nonetheless.

The American government responded to the sudden tragedy in a swift and purposeful manner, as required by Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution. Within a few hours of the assassination, the Vice President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, was duly sworn in as the thirty-sixth President. Photographs of the brief ceremony, held on board Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, showed Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the late President and the mother of his two children, forlornly standing to the side, still attired in the bloodstained outfit that she had worn earlier in the day, when she was sitting next to her husband at the instant of his murder.

Two days later, on the morning of November 24, Americans were stunned by another murder in Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald, the young troublemaker who had been accused of shooting President Kennedy, was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, the owner of a local nightclub, while being held under arrest. Without a trial, and without the testimony of Lee Harvey Oswald himself, many of the primary questions regarding the assassination of President Kennedy could never be sufficiently answered. The killing of Oswald furthered the general suspicion of a conspiracy, a suspicion that has never been put to rest. On Monday, November 25, John F. Kennedy was given the honor of a state funeral, attended by an impressive number of foreign leaders, in Washington, D.C.

During the grim and difficult days that followed, a blanket of mournful stillness settled over America. To me, taking in the heavy aftermath of the assassination with young eyes, it seemed that everything had slowed down, nearly coming to a full stop. I saw the people around me going through the motions of their usual lives, but without smiling and without saying much to one another. Although I was only a child, I could see that a powerful act had been committed, an irrevocable act whose lasting effects could not be readily understood or casually explained by anyone, not even by the grownups who supposedly were in control of things.

Nothing was ever quite the same again. As the 1960s continued, life in America was darkened by profound uneasiness and regular conflict. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed in separate shootings, and Richard M. Nixon, an awkward man whose policies appealed to those with a right-wing outlook, became President of the United States. The American war in Vietnam expanded and grew bloodier, and thousands of young people angrily took to the streets of major cities to convey their adamant opposition. It is easy to believe that America, and the rest of the world, might be better off now if John F. Kennedy had not been killed in November of 1963, but we can never know for certain.