The day seems so long ago, yet some of the memories are still so vivid. I seen to remember, it was a warm-ish day with a high overcast, not unusual for Austin in November. A cold front was due to move through overnight and lows would drop into the low 30s Saturday night, but Friday was “shirt-sleeve” weather. Fall in Austin mostly consisted of the leaves on the trees, except for the cedars and live oaks, turning brown and falling off. They covered the sidewalks and filled the gutters. I still associate the aroma of dust, dead leaves, and live oaks with fall around campus at The University.
I was living in a men’s co-op on Whitis (now replaced by an apartment complex) and had made plans to go downtown to see President Kennedy’s motorcade come into town. I don’t remember whether I didn’t have classes or whether I had decided to cut them, but I wanted to see the Presi-dent in person. I would have walked over to Guadalupe to catch a bus for downtown (that, or cut across campus and walked on foot). The motorcade route had been published. The runway at the Austin airport wasn’t long enough to accommodate Air Force One, so the President’s party was flying into Bergstrom Air Force Base southeast of town (today’s Austin International Air-port) and come into Austin by motorcade. They were to stay at the Commodore Perry Hotel, then Austin’s newest and most luxurious; today, condos and lofts) at 8th and Brazos and I seem to remember planning to get as close to the hotel as I could so I could take snapshots of the President and Mrs. Kennedy. They were to stay at the hotel for a few hours, then go by motor-cade to the Municipal Auditorium for a fundraiser (at the then-astronomical price of $100/plate) and after that, travel by helicopter to LBJ’s ranch where they would spend the weekend.
The Republican Party nationally may not have been as far-right as it is today, but in Texas, it was every bit as bad. The John Birch Society, the Tea Party of the day, was particularly vicious in its assaults of the President particularly and on Democrats in general. Nowhere in Texas were they more evident than in Dallas. Everyone I knew was very worried about the kind of reception the President would receive in Dallas that Friday. Assassination didn’t enter anyone’s mind I don’t think, but the possibility of some ugly incident such as the assault on Adlai Stevenson which had occurred only a few weeks earlier was foremost in the minds of a lot of people The early report that he had drawn large, generally friendly crowds was newsworthy.
I was heading out the front door when a fellow resident asked me where I was going. I told him and he replied, “you better wait; someone just shot at him”. It took my breath away, literally. Then we flipped on the television to find just the normal CBS afternoon programming (in those days, Austin had only one t.v. station and no cable, so we got CBS and nothing else). I snapped at the guy, “that’s not a very funny joke!” Then the second bulletin came through.
I sat down to watch; caught Cronkite’s coverage from the beginning. No one had ever seen unin-terrupted news, not even cut with commercial breaks. Considering that CBS was kind of making it up as they went, they did a pretty good job of bringing in feeds from Dallas, Washington, Hyannisport, and elsewhere, but the news was still fragmented. Nobody had a clear picture of anything but the fact that the President was dead.
The first emotion I had after rage and despair was disbelief that something like this could happen in the U. S. in 1963. No president had been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. At-tempts had been made on the lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I think it’s fair to say the country in general had become secure in the notion that political assassinations were things that happened in third-world countries, from which the United States in its political maturity was immune. And, although I did not idolize the President or the New Frontier (“Camelot” wasn’t invented as a metaphor until after he was killed; invented by his wife in a Life magazine interview), like all rational people in those days, he was my President. His promise of a new generation of leadership also resonated. As with the death of a loved one, I simply could not comprehend what had happened.
After an hour or so, the t.v. coverage got to be too much to take, so I decided to go to my after-noon gym class. I think it was a fencing class. The instructor was no fan of JFK’s and had made no secret of that fact during the term. But if The University had canceled classes I hadn’t heard about it (no Emails, internet, or even robocalls back then; the best they could do to notify every-one was just phone every department head and let him (few female faculty in those days) be re-sponsible for informing faculty who then informed students). Shutting down The University was a slow, cumbersome process.
Walking across campus was something like walking around following a natural disaster. It was unearthly quiet; people were walking around in a daze, stunned. I don’t remember seeing any-one crying, but I don’t remember hearing a soul talking, either. When I got to Gregory Gym (the old one; the “new” annex was still under construction), most of the class was there and the in-structor came bouncing in as though nothing unusual had happened. He started off with a crack about “vigah”. I was surprised someone in the class didn’t take a swing at him. He realized his mistake; tried to explain it away, and then realized he had lost us. He just waved his arm and we all went back home. I think everyone just assumed all classes would be canceled until further notice (they resumed on the following Tuesday, if I remember correctly).
I telephoned the girl I was dating at the time (yes, you read that right), who lived in the Kinsolv-ing women’s dormitory (new, large, air conditioned, and segregated). Lynda Johnson was in the same hall as my friend. The Secret Service just swooped in and took her to an unknown destina-tion (the Governor’s Mansion, as it turned out).
The remainder of Friday and all day Saturday are a blur. I remember most clearly the constant drone of the television. There soon ceased to be any new news, so announcers were just repeat-ing themselves; interviewing people who had known the President or his family; replaying com-ments from U. S. political figures and foreign government leaders. I do remember the procession with the casket from the White House to the Capitol. I can still hear the muffled drums. After I moved to Washington myself in 1967, I roomed with a guy who had been in DC in ’63. He said it was bitter cold, yet the line of people waiting to view the casket in the rotunda stretched for blocks. Some people waited hours just to walk past and pay their respects. At some point (Fri-day night?) my girlfriend and I agreed that we had to do something to escape the torrent of de-pressing news, so we went to a movie at the old Varsity theater on the corner of Guadalupe and 24th Street. The building is still there, but it isn’t a movie theater anymore. I don’t remember what the movie was. I do seem to recall that the cold front, when it blew through, brought rain with it and I seem to remember that it was a wet night. I would have had to get her back to the dorm by curfew (11:00 p.m.).
I went to church on Sunday (University Methodist). I still have a copy of the sermon in which the minister tried mightily to make some sense of the tragedy. On my way home, a friend yelled at me from across Guadalupe, “they shot Oswald!” He was elated. The Sunday afternoon news consisted of split coverage of the lying in state in the Capitol and Ruby’s murder of Oswald. No one had any idea how Ruby had gotten so close. There was no Federal law against assassinating a President in those days, so Oswald would be tried for first-degree murder under Texas law and, one might have thought, would be under tight guard. No so, apparently. The NFL elected to play all the scheduled Sunday games in honor of the fallen President, but none of them was tele-vised. I have never heard what the attendance was, skimpy, I imagine. The President’s body was still at the Capitol and there was a televised memorial service. I remember the eulogies from Sen. Mike Mansfield and others. I remember breaking down when Mrs. Kennedy brought the children up to kiss the flag, but little else. At some point, the lying in state in the Rotunda was brought to a close and the casket was brought back to the White House.
Monday was the funeral. A British commentator remarked, quite accurately I think, that on that day, Jacqueline Kennedy gave the United States something it had always lacked, majesty. The remark was snotty, but true. Everyone was shattered, even those of us watching on television. I believe the funeral was the most viewed event in history up to that time – all three networks plus radio and print coverage. The sun was setting as they lowered the President’s casket into the vault at Arlington and Mrs. Kennedy lit the eternal flame. The gravesite wasn’t landscaped as it is today. There was just a grave with a gas burner mounted with evergreen boughs at its head. The fading light seemed to me to mark the end of an era in my life; even at age 19, I had a sense that things would never again be as they had been.
Texas in general and Dallas in particular were to come in for a lot of hating from the other parts of the country. The University didn’t help matters either by electing to go ahead with its sched-uled Thanksgiving Day football game with Texas A&M less than a week later. Texas would win that game (barely) and go on to play Navy for the national championship in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1964. I went to the game. Navy’s fans, some of them, seemed to believe that they were playing for the martyred President against the people who had murdered him. The fact that Texas football Coach, Darrell Royal, had been scheduled to present the President with a football autographed by the entire team and had sent the ball on to the President’s young son with a note of condolence escaped notice, generally. It took Texas and Dallas a long time to live down the memories of November 22, 1963.
As I said at the outset, it all seems so long ago. There are blank spots that could only be filled were I to go back to Texas, Dallas and Austin, and read through the local newspapers on micro-film. They would fill in some details my mind no longer retains. At the same time, a November 22 has not passed since nor will it pass again for the rest of my life without my recalling what happened and what was lost on that horrible day and in the aftermath. Like December 7 or the day FDR died for my Mother’s generation and like September 11 for younger people, it is seared into my memory.