The Day JFK Died

John, Jackie and Caroline

John, Jackie and Caroline

The Day JFK Died

I was in advanced chemistry class at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa where I was a senior. It was the next to last period of the day on a Friday. I can’t remember what my plans were for that weekend, but it doesn’t matter what they were. Everyone’s plans for that weekend would be changed.

Me in high school. I'm the nerd on the left.

Me in high school. I’m the nerd on the left.

For some forgotten reason, another senior named Michael Browne was summoned to the office. In retrospect, it was auspicious that he was the one who left class that day. You could say that Michael Browne was our class clown. His specialty was doing an imitation of President John Kennedy and the Massachusetts accent that seemed so different from the Oklahoma drawl we were used to. Michael had developed a comedy routine around his dead-on impersonation of the President, and he was regularly performing his act in front of civic groups and men’s clubs, a pretty impressive feat for a kid who hadn’t yet graduated from high school.

Michael Browne, who brought the news the President was shot.

Michael Browne, who brought the news the President was shot.

When Michael Browne got back from his trip to the office, he brought a bombshell into our classroom, the news that President John Kennedy had been shot.

It’s hard now to understand how shocking that message was. Truly, it was a more innocent time. Assassinations didn’t happen in America. This was before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X, before George Wallace was shot and crippled, before the protests over Viet Nam, before the Chicago police riot, before Watergate, and  before Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and drowned a young woman.

The idea that someone would shoot and kill the President was incomprehensible. Things like that just didn’t happen back then. You have to try to imagine a time before school shootings, airplane hijackings, suicide bombers, poisoned Tylenol, AIDS, or drug cartels.

Before John Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas that day, the last President who had been assassinated was William McKinley, and that was in 1901. Few people living in 1963 had any memory of that event. Nobody thought about it happening again. It was a time in our history when we were still riding the glorious wave of winning World War II, of being the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It was a golden age, but it ended on that November day.

Mostly what I remember of that day is having difficulty processing the news that the President had been shot and killed. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. My brain refused to be able to put it into any kind of scheme of rational thinking.

I went on to physics class, the last period of the day. Before class started I sat stunned at my desk, my mind churning with thoughts. In the brief 34 months that John Kennedy had been President, I had grown to like him.

John Kennedy

John Kennedy

When he was elected in 1960, I wasn’t  sure about a Catholic from Massachusetts. My uncle, a hell-and-brimstone preacher, had told me that if Kennedy became president, all the Protestants would be forced to ride at the back of the bus. Viewed now, it was a ridiculous statement, but it shows the tenor of the times.

So when the magic of Camelot happened, and John Kennedy turned out to be a young, charismatic, handsome leader who gave impassioned, idealistic speeches, I was completely won over. And I just assumed America’s golden age would continue under his shining presidency. But all that came crashing down in one day.

I’m still embarrassed to this day about something that happened just before physics class got started. I was so confounded by the events of that day, I was trying desperately to understand how something so horrific had happened. In my limited comprehension, I saw one group that was Kennedy’s enemy and would benefit from his death.

So I mumbled something incredibly stupid.

“God damned Republicans.”

Apparently, I said it a little louder than I intended because we had a student teacher in physics class, a college student, and as soon as these words slipped out of my mouth, he rushed over and was shouting in my face, “What did you say? What did you say?”

I guess he was a Republican.

I refused to answer him or even look at him. Thankfully, my physics teacher ignored the whole thing. Class began and dragged on, though I doubt anybody heard what was taught that day. And then we went home for the weekend, changed forever.

Everything was canceled that weekend, football games, social gatherings, everything. Regular programming was taken off television and replaced with a picture of the President’s casket lying in state and a long line of people filing past.

Unforgettable images were burned into our memories. John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s funeral procession, the blood on Jackie’s pink outfit, Lyndon Johnson hastily taking the oath of office on an airplane, Walter Cronkite choking up as he delivered the fatal bulletin.

We found out more details, that the assassin was a loner named Lee Harvey Oswald with Communist ties. That he had shot the President from the window of a state school textbook depository building.

Ugly events followed. Oswald was arrested and murdered while in custody, Jackie Kennedy would later marry an ancient Greek shipping tycoon, President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Viet Nam (Kennedy had planned to end U.S. involvement in his second term), and the dogs and fire hoses were turned on civil rights demonstrators. Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died from drug overdoses. President Nixon resigned for being a crook.

November 22, 1963, is the day our country began to lose its gleam and shine and slowly tarnish, and the day people began to lose faith in the goodness of things

And Michael Browne, the senior who carried the terrible news to us that day 50 years ago, vowed he would never again do his Kennedy impersonation. We all lost something important that day. We lost trust. It was the beginning of a long decline in trusting our government, our institutions and each other. It was a day I will never forget.

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11 responses to “The Day JFK Died

  1. i was only a little more than 1-year old at the time, so obviously no recollection. the first “big” event i can remember was the first moon landing. but as for kennedy, i think what makes it even more difficult and controversial was – and still is – the uncertainty about what really happened. we don’t want one person, one rogue to be able to bring down a president and country. we want it to be necessary that a much bigger power would be needed. but at the same time, if it were a much bigger power, which one was it? and why?

    for me, i stick to the notion that oswald did not act alone, mainly because of jack ruby. i don’t see a reason for ruby to have killed oswald unless he were trying to silence him for that higher power’s protection. and if it was ruby, with his obvious mob connections, then that points to a crime syndicate. which one, and why?

    the only one i know of is the boston mob that helped kennedy get elected. the same mob that was prosecuted by bobby kennedy after the election. if anyone had a reason, it was the people who helped put kennedy in office, only to then be punished by a different kennedy.

    that’s all i got. what about you?

    • Rich, thanks for your comments. I agree that the uncertainty that still exists over who killed JFK is troubling. I don’t accept the lone assassin theory and you’re right that Ruby’s actions point to mob involvement. But unfortunately the water is muddied with other suspects like the CIA and Cuba. Don’t know if we’ll ever get closure on this mystery. My object with this blog was just to give the immediate reaction and try to document that it was a different time in our history and that the JFK assassination was the beginning of many disheartening events in our journey. It’s a different, more cynical world by far now.

      • If you take Ruby out of the conversation, I would go with the possibility that Hoover was involved because of his dislike for Kennedy and Hoover’s thought that Kennedy was embarrassing the country and the Office of the President. Then again, it is not impossible that Hoover arranged for Ruby to get involved.

      • There are so many dark, sinister figures associated with JFK. That’s what makes the whole thing a riddle wrapped in an enigma. But if I had to guess, my first choice would be the organized crime connection. I think they felt Kennedy betrayed them. His dad had made his fortune in bootlegging. The crime bosses thought they’d put Kennedy in office by stealing the vote in Illinois. Kennedy was in touch with the mob through a woman he was having sex with in the White House. So when he ordered Bobby to go after the mob, they did what they’d do to anybody else who crossed them. At least, that’s the scenario that makes the most sense to me.

  2. Dear Ron,

    You are right that the day before Kennedy was killed was the high water mark of America, being American and living in the reflected glow of the great things Americans had accomplished up until that time.

    Now our government has been bought and paid for and most politicians get on board the gravy train, punch their ticket for the sweet pension and do their time without making waves. Rumor has it that every president since Kennedy, shortly after they are elected, is shown a film of the events of that November day. It is a film taken from an angle never seen in the archival footage and clearly shows the shots from the grassy knoll. The lesson is implicit.

    Urban legend? Probably, We’ll never know. What remains is the realization that we as a people are not in control of our destiny. We are sheep being led to the slaughter. Nothing more, nothing less. Want to invade a country to control its oil supply? Wrap the mission in the flag, run it up the flagpole and see how many people you can get to salute it. Push the patriotism button as often as you can get away with it. Keep going to the well with each new generation. They’ll buy it because the populace has been dumbed down and most Americans can’t point to the Kerguelen Islands on a map of the world, no less name all of the states of our country.

    Your post is a good one about a sad time and the end of an era. Well written and evocative of the mood of the time. For me it was fifth grade, afternoon, and we were all sent home the minute we heard the news.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Aloha,

    Doug

    • Doug, thanks for reading and commenting. I think many people share your view of the decline of our country and I think that is why so many dark apocalyptic books and movies are popular. Changing tacks, tomorrow is Veterans Day and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your service. I think it takes real guts to serve on a sub cruising deep under the ocean. So have a great day tomorrow, break out the grog, or whatever makes you happy. You deserve it. Ron

  3. You all are so right and righteous in your thinking. We were so exhilarated by Camelot, by the fabulous speeches, by all the good things that were happening and the optimism that right would finally prevail, in civil rights and human rights. All the visionary opportunities that were suddenly available. The Peace Corp, for Goodness sake! The IQ quotient in the inner circle alone was staggering.
    We all loved JFK, even if we were unaware of his personal failings.

    The sad truth is, that the shock of this event was overwhelming to us – and to me. It was as if my own father had died – and I believe it was the same for many Americans.

    But it was the assassination of Robert Kennedy that brought on what I call “The End of Hope”, for up until then, we still thought we could change the world. And after this event, we knew we didn’t have a chance.

    BTW, I read everything I could get my hands on about the death of JFK, from the appropriate resources of course, and I totally agree with the views held by Jim Garrison in his book ‘On the Trail of the Assassins’. The other great resources for the Kennedy era are Ted Sorenson and Arthur M. Schlesinger. I believe that Oliver Stone’s movie was totally righteous!

    Love to you all from Athens,

    Lindaura

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