I remember, with vivid clarity, the moment I found out about John Kennedy’s assassination. I am not alone. It has been said that no one who lived through November 22, 1963 will ever forget where they were, what they were doing, when they found out.
For me, it was a sunny, late fall day, in Mr. Friend’s classroom on the back side of the first floor at Harold G. Campbell Junior High school. In New York City school names are ceremonial, at best. It was JHS 218 or JHS 218Q (for Queens).
Mr. Friend was told first and he relayed to the class that Kennedy had been shot. That’s all we knew. I can’t speak for the class, but I can tell you that whatever I thought at that moment, I wasn’t grasping the significance of the moment or that anything more could happen.
It was a time when TV news was much less crime and picture oriented. The grit and grime of violence may have been played out every day in the Daily News or Mirror (in 1963 the New York Post was a liberal newspaper which tended to play toward organized labor and its causes, not crime and debauchery)… but I read The Long Island Press, published in Jamaica, Queens. Violence outside of war didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.
November 22, 1963 was the day newspapers lost their position as ‘news of record’ for most Americans to television.
The windows from our classroom faced east, across open space and toward Queens College. Within a few minutes, someone in the class noticed a flag at Queens College being lowered to half staff. That’s when it hit me.
We were dismissed early and I began to walk home. I know I was with friends… maybe Dennis Westler, possibly Marty Ingber. I’m not really sure but I know I wasn’t alone. We discussed the fact that the president was dead and Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, had suffered a heart attack. I know now that was wrong – I didn’t then. We speculated what would happen. I was 13.
Still, we were discussing facts and the emotion had still not hit me. We were cavalier.
As I came home and turned on the TV, I realized this was major. All regular programming was gone. News, in a somber manner, was on all channels. Slowly, from the adults around me, I began to become aware of the gravity of the situation. We all sat, glued to the television.
Though I was born during the Truman administration and remember Eisenhower in a sketchy sort of way, Kennedy was the first president that I really knew. My parents were good Democrats in a lower middle class area of trade unionists who were also Democrats. The huge apartment complex we lived in, made up of dozens of three and six story buildings, was financed and built by the Electrical Workers Union Local 3 and called Electchester. Our friend Morris Scott, on the first floor of our six story 72 unit building, was a Transport Workers Union and Democratic functionary. He was not an exception in Electchester. The two went together.
During the campaign for the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy spoke at a campaign rally at Parsons Boulevard and Jewel Avenue, a block from our apartment. I found the photo on the left at an NYU site – amazing it’s preserved on the net. The facade of the building behind Kennedy is from the Pomonok Housing Project, which was across the street from us. The camera is shooting from the SE to the NW, across the intersection. My memory is of a huge crowd, but I was 10 at the time. This busy intersection was closed and a wooden platform was built.
Richard Nixon had nothing to gain by coming to my neighborhood. He was everything we weren’t, Kennedy was like us, though nothing could be further from the truth.
Anything I thought or felt about Kennedy during the campaign was based on those things that affect a ten year old; my parents, grandparents and the folks we lived around. I knew nothing about his policies, politics, social standing or any of the things we know today… and there’s no doubt we know a hell of a lot more today.
In my sphere of influence, Kennedy was like a god. I know that sounds foolish or naive now, but that’s the truth. To me, he was much larger than life. And he was the first adult I knew of to die tragically.
I had tickets to see a Broadway show on the Saturday following the assassination. It was probably my first Broadway show. Like the NFL schedule the next day, Broadway went on. In hindsight, both football and theater performances were bad ideas. Even so, with a bunch of my classmates and Mr. Friend, we boarded the bus for Flushing and the IRT subway (actually it was mostly above ground) to Times Square to see “Enter Laughing.”
I now know, this show was an autobiographical sketch from Carl Reiner. Then, who knew who Carl Reiner was? I remember it being funny in an irreverent sort of way, but the day being gray and gloomy in every other sense.
Sunday morning we sat home in our tiny apartment, 5E. I lived in an apartment with only a northern exposure. At no time in the 16 years I lived in this apartment… and decades longer my parents lived there, did we ever see the sun!
The TV in the living room, our only TV, was tuned to CBS. Along with millions of others, I watched Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, live. Being live, coast-to-coast, from that Dallas Police Department Garage was quite a technical achievement 40 years ago. Today, we see the videotape replay as grainy, dated black and white. Back then, it was live and vivid. Grainy black and white was the norm.
I was stunned. We were all stunned. How was this humanly possible? Today’s metal detecting, secure area-ed society was light years away. I had never seen a pistol, but in Texas, they were much more the norm.
Monday was the funeral. I think my dad was home, which was not a scheduled day off from work. Certainly every school was closed and my guess is most businesses too. By this time we had a common grief and stunned disbelief in what had happened. If it is possible, I remember being a 13 year old who was depressed.
The country stopped for the funeral. It struck me then, as it does now, that there are people who actually know how to plan an event like this with the proper protocol and deference to tradition. What a morbid field of expertise.
It was an awful, rainy day in Queens on that Monday. The funeral was long and sad and more than anything else I remember the riderless horse, the muffled drums and the crying. We’ve all seen the photo of John Jr. saluting. I believe that was only seen by still photographers. I don’t think we saw that live.
People think it was live because it’s been published and seen so many times. A similar situation is the film of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, with dust flying and the shadow of the lander on the surface. That too was never seen live on TV, though we did hear the voices of the astronauts and Mission Control.
Five or six years after the funeral I was marching down those same Washington streets, protesting the war in Vietnam. In 1963 there was no thought that you might protest what your government was doing. But after JFK’s assassination, everything changed.
Lyndon Johnson became the president and used the Kennedy aura to pass Civil Rights legislation that began to bring this country out some draconian policies that survived even the Civil War. Johnson also inherited Kennedy’s involvement in Vietnam, which would be his undoing as a president. The war accelerated, halfway around the world.
Before Kennedy’s assassination we were innocent and invulnerable. World War II had taken place without any conflict reaching America’s shores. Korea too was fought far away. The strength of our military, combined with the breadth of the ocean, protected us from harm. But now we found that harm could come from within and that nothing would ever be safe again.
A generation only knows about the assassination through Oliver Stone’s movie. Shame on him. Shame on them. Stone’s powerful use of the medium told America a lie, packaged as the truth.
Forty years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday.
(This entry originally posted November 22, 2003)