When everyone around you undergoes a traumatic experience, especially at a young age, you remember finite details of that experience for the rest of your life. And so it was for me 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, Pennsylvania. The day before, we had discussed in our current events club about how JFK and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s recently resigned former premier, had a vociferous argument over Israel’s alleged new nuclear weapons program, just six weeks after JFK pushed through the nuclear test ban treaty – for the entire world to sign.
JFK didn’t want Israel to make nuclear weapons. Ben-Gurion shot back that Israel’s adversaries wanted genocide – that this was the lesson of the Nazis, that this was why the Jews needed nukes (the dialogue is well documented in Avner Cohen’s book Israel And The Bomb).
As I walked out of school to catch the bus home, a seventh grader came running out 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.” He had one message: to get involved. Join the Peace Corps. Fight for civil rights. Be proud to work for the country.
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, “Do 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 DC, where he was one of the engineers who was working on central air conditioning for the big post office in Washington. Thinking I would join him there, I asked her if I could cover the funeral for the paper. She said sure.
AS I CAME HOME down the sidewalk 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, Neal, shrugged his shoulders and said that “we have an old man again,” meaning Lyndon Johnson.
And there was The Evening Bulletin spread on the couch, with the headline “Kennedy shot in Dallas street,” superimposed over the sub headline: “Nixon, in Dallas, says that Kennedy will drop Johnson in 1964.”
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. 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 following day in Washington – where my friend Gary and I would accompany my dad on the Pennsylvania Railroad from 30th Street – I was glued to the television screen, 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 and rollicking about with his children. 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 his assassination on live television. Nothing could ever beat that unbelievable moment in US television history.
The next morning in DC, we walked from Union Station to the post office. We saw world leaders walk out of the White House, where they paid their respects to the late president. I stood in awe as Charles de Gaulle of France, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Golda Meir of Israel, Willy Brandt of West Germany, Olof Palme of Sweden and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia walked by us. All passed very slowly, somberly, without any protection whatsoever. As a Scottish band played a solemn version of “Hail to the Chief,” a quiet crowd looked on.
Yes, this was a memorial to JFK, yet it was also a salute to America some 18 years after World War II when the US role proved vital to saving the world from the Nazi and fascist threat. It was a thank-you to America for its stand in the Cold War, which 13 months earlier had almost boiled over.
The US secret service took no chances with American public officials. They all drove in vans, with guards on each side. 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.
On the Pennsylvania Railroad, an older lady (she might have been 40, but I remember her as “old”) asked us what we thought of the recent assassinations. My response was that while I thought killing Huey Long was a good idea, 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 my questions, 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 official documents of the JFK assassination are released in 2013. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1226404823463&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull