This is the only day in history I can think of on which I can remember where I was and what I was doing when something important happened – the day John F. Kennedy was assasinated. Needless to say I was surprised and shocked. This happened on Friday, November 22, 1963.
I heard in the news yesterday that only a third of the current population of the United States was alive 50 years ago. Based upon the 2010 census, this number is actually less than 32.1% or <99,100,000 people. I asked a colleague at work who was 12 years old at the time if he remembered the day and he said his sixth grade teacher announced that Kennedy had been killed to the class on that day. If we assume that children under 10 were not emotionally affected by learning of the assassination, only <19.5% or <60,200,000 people that live today were affected by this event. Back then in 1963 there were only 189,300,000 people in the United States, about 61% of the population today. Although only about half of the population voted for Kennedy in the Presidential election I am sure that most in the nation and world experienced profound sadness. Kennedy had captivated us with his charm and eloquence. Much of his popularity was due to Jackie and the two kids, John John and Caroline, and their presence in the White House. This is not unlike the Obamas in the White House today putting aside today’s politics. There was great pride back then in our President and his family.
At the time, Marilyn Monroe and JFK’s philandering were not a part of the story. When those stories started to seep out, I asked my father how he felt about it and he responded, “He’s only human.” That response has stuck in my mind too because he was probably talking about himself as much as JFK.
Listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio for about 10 minutes yesterday reminded me that some are re-writing history of the Kennedy legacy. They can’t stand the idea that Nixon lost to Kennedy – never mind Watergate – and that Kennedy was a Democrat and a Catholic. When Kennedy got to Dallas that day, we were already aware of hate for Jews, Blacks, and Catholics alike that was especially visible in Dallas. It’s really too bad that we will never know what was running through Oswald’s mind leading up to the dastardly act, but this probably has nothing to do with Dallas. I’ve been in Dallas a bunch of times, but it never entered my mind to drive over to that place where Kennedy was shot.
On November 22, 1963, a nice day, I took a train from Darien to Grand Central Station to have lunch with my parents. They were staying at the Biltmore hotel and were planning to go to the theatre that night. I had left college in my junior year to take the year off. This was a good move for me given the positive things in my life that resulted from this hiatus in my formal education. We had lunch at the Biltmore and then dad went back to work a few blocks away and mom and I went up to their room. We got into the elevator along with a gentleman and as the doors were shutting, someone outside uttered ‘Kennedy has been shot.’ As the elevator began to rise the gentleman said that ‘It’s a bad joke.’ We got to the room and I turned on the TV to see if it was true. Walter Cronkite was already there telling us what he could.
I decided to walk over to Times Square to experience the reaction to the news. I recall that there was a lot of frenetic scurreying as pedestrians tried to find out the facts and perhaps find a safe haven. The scrolling news feed on the Times building said that Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally had been shot in a motorcade in Dealey Plaza at 12:30 PM eastern standard time. Dealey Plaza, unknown to easterners at the time, became a place that everyone could visualize from that day on.
TV was reporting minute by minute the events as they unfolded. People were huddled around store fronts that had TVs in their windows. Everything changed that afternoon as Johnson was swarn in as President. It was Johnson with the help of McNamarra who escalated the Vietnam War over the ensuing years. Oswald had taught disgruntled activists how to assassinate the politicians they did not like, and riots developed that led to the burning of inner cities.
I have one more memory of that day. After a few hours of hovering around Times Square, I made it back to Grand Central to catch a commutor train back to Darien. I walked down the platform to the Bar Car. As I climbed the stairs onto the train, I overheard a conversation that astonished me. A business man in a suit with drink in hand said ‘He deserved to be killed!” I just moved on.
By early 1971 I had gotten back on track and rolled into Johns Hopkins in downtown Baltimore to start a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer research. The setting was reminescent of the northeast emerging from a war because the destruction was still evident around the medical center. I had survived the turmoil of the 1960s with the help of Dylan, Thelonius Monk, and the Beetles.
For those of us who were alive then, the impact of the Kennedy assassination was of the same magnitude as 9/11, if not greater.