Recollections of the Kennedy Assassination

This past November 22, our nation observed its annual day of media mourning and conspiracy catharsis, rendered more intense and poignant by being the 50th anniversary of the assassination that continues to fascinate and haunt a great many people, even some who were not yet born in 1963. Since I live without television, this date normally passes unnoticed in my home. However, somewhat out of curiosity, and to test my recollection of events, I watched a bit of the streaming webcast of the CBS News original coverage of the event.

Most of it seemed quite new, though I did recall some of it quite well, such as Walter Cronkite’s voice as he broke the news of three shots being fired in Dallas. Perhaps it was the celerity and certitude of this report that lent Cronkite such grandfatherly authority for the rest of his career, despite the chimeric nature of most of his reporting, especially on Vietnam. Viewing the rebroadcast so many years later, I was surprised by the contrast between Cronkite’s calm demeanor and the outright strangeness of the next hour of his reporting, as he droned on and on about the probable violence of right-wing fanatics in Texas. When the murder turned out to have been committed by a pro-Castro Marxist, the assassin’s motive no longer seemed relevant, and the subject was more or less dropped for the next few days, to be picked up by conspiracy theorists for the next fifty years.

Along with not forgetting where we were when we first heard Cronkite’s announcement, we are not supposed to forget or even to “get over” that weekend. Ever. Well, I do not remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, and I have only fleeting memories of those somber events. And I got over it all rather quickly and permanently. But then, I was only six years old at the time. Nevertheless, the memories I do retain are all the more sharp-edged and remarkable for being so spare and sporadic. And what I remember taking place, and especially not taking place, reveals just how different it was to be a child growing up in the 1960s, especially a child in a large Catholic family.

For example, I was quite aware that my mother was upset about the event, but not because of any tears or wailing in the home. For a few days, she ironed the family’s ubiquitous piles of clothes in silence, instead of voicing her favorite opera arias while she worked. I thought all mothers loved ironing dress shirts and school uniforms so much that the chore set them to singing. So I knew something upsetting must have happened to have thus killed the joy of ironing. Today, of course, one would be hard pressed (no pun intended) to find too many mothers doing much ironing. Mothers work in offices, and most clothing—especially school clothes—is intended to look dreadful, and can scarcely be improved by washing, let alone ironing.

On the evening of November 22, my older siblings were quieter than usual at the dinner table, and this was quite noticeable. Normally, dinner was serious business, and everybody had to be prepared to speak correctly and intelligently about the day’s events and what they had learned at school. Bad grammar or a refusal to participate in the discussion could earn you a jab in the elbow with a serving fork. My father found nothing amusing about slovenly posture, poor expression, or a sullen disposition. But throughout that weekend in 1963, the children were permitted to eat glumly and stare down at their plates, if they so wished. I had never seen such behavior before and never saw it again.

On the first night after the assassination, my father did offer a brief mention of the Kennedys at evening prayers, but he also mentioned the brave Dallas police officer who died in the line of duty, without any suggestion that one of the men was more important than the other. I do recall the live broadcast of JFK’s funeral procession on the following Monday, which, despite the wonderful precision of soldiers and horses, was boring after fifteen minutes. My mother had the thing on the television set all day, but I do not recall my father staying home from work to watch the event. Contrary to what reporters now suggest, the world simply did not come to an end for all Americans in November 1963.

That was also my first year in elementary school. With the horrifyingly sudden and violent death of the nation’s first Catholic president, where else would one expect to find extremes of emotion but in a Catholic school? And yet, what is most noteworthy about my memory of that day and its aftermath is what did not occur. At Saint John the Divine school in Lawrence, Kansas, there were no hysterical displays of emotion on the part of the teachers, all of whom were sisters. No class days were cancelled, no instruction was curtailed, no excuses accepted for poor recitations and sloppy handwriting on Big Chief tablets. No psychologists were brought into the school and no counseling sessions scheduled. We were not asked to draw pictures of our feelings about the event. In fact, nobody asked for our thoughts or reactions in any way. Thus, we spent very little time thinking about it.

There was a special school Mass for the president and his family, preceded by a rosary, which made for a rather long ceremony for a somewhat hyperactive six-year-old. I remember vividly being poked in the ribcage by Sr. Joseph Leonard as I alternately squirmed and rested my backside against the pew. “Can’t you even kneel properly for Jesus?” she scolded. Note, she did not ask whether I could kneel for the Kennedys. The Mass was said for the intention of that stricken family, but the prayers were directed to God.

What is even more notable about the lack of any display of anguish at the time of the assassination is that my first-grade class had recently begun studying the long list of American presidents, with the aim of memorizing them all. (In 1963, exercising one’s memory was still considered an essential part of learning how to learn.) Thus, I was well aware that Kennedy was our first Catholic president. When my older brother returned home from school one day with the suggestion (picked up from one of his 6th grade classmates) that Kennedy was killed because he was Catholic, my father shot down that theory immediately. He hated any form of self-pity and dismissed all conspiratorial theories as being “loony.” “Well, then, why do you think Oswald killed him?” my brother challenged. “Because some people are no damned good,” replied my father.

When you hear the absolute truth, it resonates with clarity and simplicity, overwhelming the feeble counter-arguments of experts and obfuscators. My father’s reply has remained with me throughout the years, as has his Catholic faith, his belief in good and evil, and the common mortality of every man, to shield me from credulity and interest in fanciful intrigues. I had no trouble accepting that the most powerful man in the world could be felled by the most inconsequential person harboring the most irrational grievance. And then, for those who didn’t get the lesson the first time, Jack Ruby came along and showed that even insignificant people can be murdered by someone unimportant. Just as when a man in the prime of life succumbs to a primitive, microscopic virus, it doesn’t have to make any sense. It hurts, but life goes on.

I also recall that shortly after Thanksgiving, president Kennedy’s pictures came down from the walls of my classroom, and Lyndon Johnson’s picture went up. I liked LBJ right away. Johnson looked just like my grandfather, and he had that Texas drawl that most of my extended family possessed. However, as Christmas neared, I was briefly concerned for JFK’s children, when I saw them standing next to the ghostly, black-shrouded figure of Jackie on the cover of a magazine. I asked my father what would become of them. “They have lots of aunts and uncles. One of their uncles will take over as the dad, just like my brother would if I died. Big families never have to worry about anything.” This satisfied me very much, as I liked my uncle, who looked just like my father and was a kindly man. With this brief concern alleviated, the Kennedy assassination was a closed chapter for me.

There has been a great deal more violence in America since then, some of it far more horrifying than what happened in Dallas. And each new incident has been followed by the conspiracy theories that serve as a coping strategy for those increasing numbers of Americans who can make no sense of the basic facts of human existence, namely that it is rather brief and sometimes ends quite violently. I have never attempted to shield my own children from this reality, but they have never seemed traumatized by it. It is not strictly true, of course, that “big families never have to worry about anything.” However, the multitude of our small, daily challenges does seem to keep “historic events” at a safe distance. In the midst of mourning, even on a national stage, the life of the home goes on.

Timothy J. Williams

By

Timothy J. Williams is Professor of French and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. He is the author of Desire and Persecution in Thérèse Desqueyroux and Other Selected Novels of François Mauriac (2007). In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

  • Don

    The assassination was one of my first memories. I was 3 years old and remember watching the funeral on TV with my mother and grandmother. About 5 years later (in Catholic school), my teacher commented that the “wise” Kennedy had assured Americans that he would not let his faith dictate his actions as president. I was sent to the corner of the classroom when I asked; “Then what good is it to be a Catholic?” I’m still kind of proud of that punishment!

  • jcsmitty

    I was a 16-year-old Catholic high school student when Kennedy was killed, and I can remember almost every minute of it like it was yesterday. Nevertheless, it did, indeed, remind us all that no one is indispensable.

    I still remember my feelings when JFK’s office model of his PT-109 was shown being moved out of the White House mere days after his death. One minute he was vibrant, smiling and seemingly on top of the world. The next he was a footnote in history and LBJ wasted no time in taking his place.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I think the only reason the assassination is still an issue at all, is because it was a defining moment for the Narcissistic Generation.

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  • Adam__Baum

    Every murder is a travesty, even those of people who aren’t the inflated products of politics. I wonder how many people know that a Dallas Police Officer died at the same man’s hand that day?

    There was nothing special about the Kennedys, other than their irrepressible compulsion to seek office.

    • uncle max

      Which brings to mind the classic remark by Ann Coulter – “In the war on women so far the democrats have the only confirmed kill.”

      • Benjamin Warren

        That woman! This is delicious!

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      I think we should conduct a ‘man on the street’ interview of 100 college-educated individuals and ask the simple question: “Who was MaryJo Kopeckne” My guess is that 0% would be able to correctly identify her thanks to media bias. Ever see an anniversary documentary about her life and death and how ‘the swimmer’ got away with murder. I wonder how many people who live on Chappaquiddick Island could correctly identify Teddy’s girlfriend of the evening.

      • Adam__Baum

        She and I share the same city of birth (albeit many years apart), and was an occasional visitor to my grandmother’s neighbor as a child, and her funeral and burial were held not far away.

        If the above were not so, I might just know Ted killed some young woman. .

      • hombre111

        By all means, change the subject, and so avoid the issue at hand. When Kennedy was killed, I was a deacon in the seminary. It is hard to understate the impact of the murder of a president, except by those who were too young to really remember, or who have other fish to fry. America was simply stunned. For days, everything stopped, even in our work-oriented seminary, where almost nothing got in the way of schedule as usual. The murder of Oswald in front of the news cameras of the world added to the sense of chaos and dismay.

        To understand more deeply, you would have to have experienced the optimism and hope that Kennedy brought to the world. Suddenly, he was dead, and America went into a dead state of pessimism that was increased by the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, plus the deepening quagmire of the Vietnam War.

        I think Kennedy’s death contributed to the social and moral collapse of the sixties and seventies. The center could not hold. Kennedy was the young man who called young Americans to idealism, to the best dreams of their country. When he died, and then Robert, and then King, the forces of hatred and violence seemed to emerge triumphant. Despite the protests by moral leaders (Martin Luther King, the Pope) the Vietnam War ground on. In the face of all this disillusionment, why not stake your life on individualism and sexual revolution? Or to the Darwinian economic revolution of Ronald Reagan?

        • Art Deco

          To understand more deeply, you would have to have experienced the optimism and hope that Kennedy brought to the world.

          Many years ago, Charles Krauthammer offered that true solipsism is found only in asylums. However, participants in public discourse had been infected with a bad case of ‘plural solipsism’, “Not the belief that the world is me, but the belief that everyone is like me”.

        • Art Deco

          I think Kennedy’s death contributed to the social and moral collapse of
          the sixties and seventies. The center could not hold. Kennedy was the
          young man who called young Americans to idealism, to the best dreams of
          their country. When he died, and then Robert, and then King, the forces
          of hatred and violence seemed to emerge triumphant.

          The ‘forces of hatred and violence’ would be in those cases a misfit addled by delusions of grandeur and by a fanciful beef with the Governor of Texas, a career convict with a bad attitude seeking some sort of accomplishment, and a head case lashing out at a stand-in for a political abstraction which had humiliated his family (and was itself a useful stand in for the father who had truly injured him).

          Why not recall the real ‘hatred and violence’ of the era?: 700 odd urban riots and a doubling of the homicide rate (brought to you by politicians and jurists declining to allow the police the free rein to do their jobs, hire the manpower to police the slums, or give malefactors their just deserts.

          • hombre111

            Rave on. You weren’t there.

        • Adam__Baum

          Do you have any interests other spinning leftwing fairy tales?

        • Guest

          You mean like the people who voted for him because they thought he was handsome, or the ones who admired his wife? That optimism?

          • hombre111

            No, I mean the people who voted for him because they wanted America to move into a better future, instead of the same old same old offered by Nixon.

      • Guest

        Why interrupt the fantasies of the masses who live unexamined lives?

        • hombre111

          Sounds like the minimum wage earning red necks in my state, who routinely vote for the rich guys in the pin striped suits. They don’t look in the mirror and say, those guys don’t give a good damn about me!

          • thebigdog

            Yesterday you wrote: “By all means, change the subject, and so avoid the issue at hand.”

            Today you are babbling about “minimum wage earning read necks”

            How is that staying on the subject of the JFK assassination? The hypocrisy of your self-righteous and condescending lectures doesn’t bother you in the least, does it?

  • timfleming

    “Far more horrifying than what happened in Dallas…”??? Among your many inaccuracies and inappropriate rhetoric, this strikes me as the worst. What is more horrifying than a sitting president gunned down in broad daylight in an American city under blatantly suspicious circumstances, and the case goes unsolved for a half-century…leaving the country in a post-democracy limbo, suspecting that all subsequent administrations have been illegitimate. You should cease and desist from commenting on things you know nothing of.

    Tim Fleming
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/ASIN/098882907X

    • Adam__Baum

      “What is more horrifying than a sitting president gunned down in broad daylight.”

      9/11 comes to mind.

      • timfleming

        Missed my point entirely.

        Tim Fleming
        http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/ASIN/098882907X

        • Art Deco

          No, your point is silly. It disrupts political processes but is otherwise no more horrifying than any other brazen homicide.

        • Adam__Baum

          Your point was clear and readily defeasible. Just admit that.

          • Art Deco

            Check the link. This guy is a class AAA fantasist. He’s cribbed from a lunatic thesis promoted thirty years ago from an author named David Lifton.

            • Adam__Baum

              Yikes.

    • Art Deco

      The case is not ‘unsolved’. It had to be resolved through a commission of inquiry rather than a trial in front of a petty jury.

      Nothing terribly mysterious there. Lee Harvey Oswald showed up for work with a package of ‘curtain rods’ built a sniper’s nest on a floor of his workplace under construction, and pumped three bullets out at a limousine full of dignitaries. Then he scurried out of the building and took a bus to a different location in the city where he was espied by a local police officer. He responded to the police officer’s manifest interest by shooting him dead with a pistol in front of a mess of eyewitnesses. Then he ducked into a local cinema where he was shortly arrested and jailed and killed two days later by a local nightclub owner who was acting impetuously.

      • timfleming

        I do not debate with history illiterates.
        Tim Fleming
        http://www.leftlooking.blogspot.com

        • Art Deco

          I’m crying in my beer over that.

        • uncle max

          Facts:
          He was a Marine trained marksman, he had a rifle with a 4 power scope on it, he had a clear view of his target and he was 88 yards away from his target.

  • C.S.

    The assassination was before my time, but I could sure relate to this! : “most clothing—especially school clothes—is intended to look dreadful,
    and can scarcely be improved by washing, let alone ironing.” So true! Just this morning I noticed how terrible my kindergartner’s uniform shirt looked–incredibly wrinkled and with some spots on it. The harsh fluorescent lights made it all the more glaring. Usually my husband takes her to school, so I’m oblivious, but this morning he had an early meeting.

    On November 22, 1963 when my mom’s class heard that “the president’s been shot” one girl incredulously asked “Sister Mary Ann Ida’s been shot? Who would want to shoot her?”

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