When you undergo a traumatic experience, especially at a young age, you remember finite details of that experience for the rest of your life. When a nation undergoes a traumatic experience, everyone shares in that national catharsis.
And so it was with the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on that fateful Friday – November 22, 1963. I was in eighth grade at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion. Just the day before we had discussed in our current events club how JFK and David Ben Gurion, Israel’s recently resigned former premier, had a vociferous argument over Israel’s new nuclear weapons program, six weeks after JFK pushed through the nuclear test ban treaty – for the entire world to sign.
JFK wanted Israel to stop making nuclear weapons. Ben Gurion shot back that Israel’s adversaries wanted genocide, and that this was the lesson of the Nazis, and that is why the Jews needed Nukes. (a dialogue that was well documented in the book Israel And The Bomb by Avner Cohen.
As I walked out of school to catch the bus at 54th and City Line, a seventh grader came running out of school with the news that JFK had been shot dead in Dallas.
The first thoughts that hit me were that he was such a young guy, like a nice uncle who always had new ideas. My mind was racing, and I quickly wrote down my thoughts.
How would we remember JFK? I remembered listening to him in sixth grade at his inauguration – “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
JFK had one message, to get involved.
The peace corps. The civil rights movement. To be proud to work for the country. The way to remember him would be to get involved. Getting on the bus home at City Line was a scene I will never forget. People of all ages were sobbing.
A black man said to the driver, “You know what he did for us?” The editor of the school paper was also on the bus. I told her that my dad was commuting these days to Washington, where he was one of the engineers who was working on central air conditioning for the big post office in Washington. I asked her if I could cover the funeral for the paper. She said sure.
Coming home down the sidewalk to home on Malvern Avenue in Overbrook Park, my mom was standing outside, with her hands folded. She asked me what I thought. My eight-year-old brother told me that “we have an old man again,” referring to LBJ.
And there was The Evening Bulletin spread on the couch, with the headline KENNEDY SHOT IN DALLAS STREET, superimposed over the sub headline of the day: “NIXON, IN DALLAS, SAYS THAT KENNEDY WILL DROP JOHNSON IN 1964.” My head started spinning: What was Nixon doing in Dallas? Did Johnson know this? Hey, wasn’t Johnson in Dallas too?
Sitting in the living room for hours, we watched a shaken Walter Cronkite describe everything that he could about JFK and then about the ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald. And the weekly satire show “That Was The Week That Was,” hosted by David Frost, led with a melody that was written on the spot by the usually hilarious staff, now somber and serious. The lyrics were unforgettable:
“A young man rode with his head held high, Under the Texas sun, And no one guessed, That a man so blessed, Would perish by the gun, Lord, would perish by the gun. A shot rang out like a Southern shout, And Heaven held its breath, For a man shot down, In a Southern town,
In the summer of his years, Yes the summer of his years.
Oh we’ll rally round the flag and we’ll rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of freedom.”
As I psyched myself up that Sunday to cover the funeral the next day in D.C – where my friend Gary and I would accompany my dad on the Pennsylvania Railroad from 30th street – I was glued to the TV, to learn anything and everything that could be learned about the assassination and the assassin. Clips from JFK’s short life were flashed across the screen. His press conferences. His proud declaration of freedom at the Berlin Wall. Rollicking about with his little kids. And Cronkite showed a film of Oswald giving out fliers for the Fair Play For Cuba Committee in New Orleans.
And then the TV cut to the scene in the Dallas police station, where Oswald was being arraigned. And we watched Oswald assassinated on live television. Nothing could ever beat that unbelievable moment in TV history.
The next morning in D.C., we walked from Union Station to the post office. We saw world leaders walk out of the White House, where they paid their last respects to JFK. I stood in awe as Charles DeGaulle of France, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Golda Meir of Israel, Willy Brandt of West Germany, Olaf Aplmer of Sweden, Habib Bourgeiba of Tunisia, walked by us. All walking slowly, somberly, without any protection whatsoever. And the Scottish band playing a solemn version of Hail to the Chief. And a quiet crowd around us who watched.
Yes, this was a memorial to JFK. Yet, it was also a salute to America, 18 years after World War II, when the USA’s role proved vital to saving the world from the Nazi and fascist threat, and a thank you to America for its stand in the Cold War, which 13 months before almost boiled over.
The U.S. secret service took no chances with American public officials. They all drove in vans, with guards on their sides. We got a glimpse of President Johnson as he drove by, and my father took a snapshot of the car. The policeman standing in front of us went to pieces when the casket of JFK went by, with the lonely unmounted horse leading the way. I had never see a grown man cry, let alone a cop.
After everyone went by, my dad went to work at the post office, and Gary and I strolled through the crowd back to Union Station and back to 30th Street. On the Pennsylvania Railroad, an older lady (She might have been 40, but I remember her as “old”) asked us what we thought of assassinations. My response was that, well, killing Huey Long was a good idea but that killing JFK was a bad idea. I then started asking questions of my own, and five or six people got into the conversation, and no one had answers to questions that I had, like, “How could it be that a marine runs away to Russia in the middle of the Cold War, gets married, comes back, is not arrested, works for Cuba, and then kills the president and then he gets killed two days later?”
I kept asking that run-on question, and America will keep asking that run-on question, until the officially-sequestered documents of the JFK assassination are released in 2013. It will be a pleasure to peruse those documents for the Bulletin.
Epilogue One: Songs
Our eighth grade music teacher, Mr. Richard Marcus, spent the good part of the year after the JFK assassination teaching us the new folk songs that were written in memory of JFK and that awful moment. Phil Ochs wrote one of his favorite songs.
The lyrics went as follows: Oh the bullets of the false revenge have struck us once again As the angry seas have struck upon the sand And it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend That was the President and that was the man. I still can see him smiling there and waving at the crowd As he drove through the music of the band And never even knowing no more time would be allowed Not for the President and not for the man. Here’s a memory to share, here’s a memory to save Of the sudden early ending of command Yet a part of you and a part of me is buried in his grave That was the President and that was the man. It’s not only for the leader that the sorrow hits so hard There are greater things I’ll never understand How a man so filled with life, even death was caught off guard. That was the President and that was the man. Every thing he might have done and all he could have been Was proven by the troubled traitors hand For what other death could wound the hearts of so many men That was the President and that was the man. Yes, the glory that was Lincoln’s never died when he was slain It’s been carried over time and time again And to the list of honor you may add another name That was the President and that was the man. That was the President and that was the man.
Epilogue Two: Poor Michael Berkovitz Michael Berkovitz had the misfortune to have his bar mitzvah on the weekend of November 22, 1963.
Nobody paid attention to Michael Berkovitz. Everybody was talking about JFK in the bar mitzvah reception line. I remember his sad face that the day he became a man was one-upped by the president’s assassination.
A scrawny guy, I will never forget Michael Berkovitz standing on the side of his own bar mitzvah reception, saying that nobody wanted to talk to him. Even worse than being stood up on your first date is to have a president assassinated when you are supposed to be joyous. Nothing like bad timing for a 13-year-old.