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.
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.
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.
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.