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.