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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    "The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little. " --Franklin D. Roosevelt

    by jg6544 on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 05:15:12 PM PST

  •  The day the music stopped? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, PeteZerria, worldlotus

    I did not have access to TV.  I was in Israel at the Weizmann Institute doing my post doctoral work.

    Learning about it on international radio was very different.

    Just like the Gulf of Tonkin event.  Heard that on international radio too.  Came home soon afterward cutting my post doc short.  Couldn't stand what was happening to my country.  Got home and was totally mind-blown by the propaganda on American news.

    I guess that's why I take a systems theory approach to my disbelief in the official accounts.  It did not have to be a conspiracy to happen.  The system drove it.

    At least when FDR died it was natural.  I came out of a movie in Chicago and my mom saw the headline and broke apart right there.  Some things you never forget.

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 05:43:39 PM PST

  •  I'll never forget this day in 1963 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, marzook

    it was the first time I ever smoked pot (aged 14)

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 05:45:49 PM PST

  •  I was in fourth grade (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, marzook, worldlotus

    That was back in the day when kids went home for lunch. I was walking back after lunch across the school parking lot and my younger brother (first grade)  came up to me and said President Kennedy had been shot. I said, no he wasn't. But I was wrong as I quickly found out.

    It was a weird time. There was nothing (literally) on television for the next several days except coverage of the wake and the funeral. It was incredibly tedious.

    I also remember where I was when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. I was with my mother at the shoe store buying shoes for me (always an ordeal).

    This year the calendar days fall on the same days of the week as in '63.

    "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

    by Demi Moaned on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 05:58:16 PM PST

  •  i was 3.5.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OLinda, worldlotus

    it's one of my earliest memories. my mom bundling me in the coat she made me up and running down the street to the home of one of her friends (both husbands were still at dad was a high school teacher and could not leave..the neighbor's husband was an ad exec working in downtown chicago, a long train ride away.) They watched tv and cried.  They hugged each other. I had no idea what was going on; I just knew something was shaking my unshakable mom and it made the whole keel. The only other thing I remember was the following day..a quick flash...trying to work the tv...bewildered that, channel after channel, (hand turned) the cartoons I loved weren't on.  that's all..but I'm the kind of person who does not remember much. My parents were Kennedy democrats and it knocked them for a loop. and made them fight harder.

    Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job. -- Adlai E. Stevenson (GOTV)

    by marzook on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:01:15 PM PST

  •  The Tea Party ARE the Birchers, at Their Core (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    it's been part of the coalition driving the rightwing revolution since the 60's.

    I was in middle school, don't recall the weather clearly but my impression was that it was overcast & cool here in N Ohio.

    A few days earlier, some of my family had been raving about a recent performance by the touring Black Watch regiment of Scotland where they evidently stormed into the auditorium with lights out, drums crackling and carrying torches, before striking up the pipes.

    On Monday they marched in the funeral parade for JFK.

    My brother and I were home Sunday while parents went to church, they wanted to let us see the ongoing coverage because it was so historic. As the diarist says, there had been no such thing as continuous news.

    We saw either live or replayed on the network shortly after the fact, when Oswald was shot. I remember we broke the news to mom & dad when they returned from church. It was more brutal than the scores to hundreds of gunshots a week we were immersed in, in postwar WW2 and frontier programming.

    The word "pandemonium" was the word that caught on like wildfire among reporters and commentators. It was heard countless times in descriptions of the plaza and the hospital scenes.

    I can't recommend enough the History channel program "Lost JFK Tapes: the Assassination" which is pure programming from those days that incidentally shows the quality of local print, radio & tv reporters and other news personnel that show today's best national talent in a very poor light. It's a 2 hour immersion in those times without any distraction of later interpretation or commentary.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:06:46 PM PST

    •  You are talking about Akron Area. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have a faint memory of a girl friend's parents going to something like the Scottish drummers.  It was over cast and acted like it wanted to rain.  I was in High school then.  It sure did effect us.  I remember going down town the day after Thanksgiving and Main Street was still draped in black.  One of the major department stores had one window devoted to Kennedy instead Christmas. I can't imagine the greedy retailers of today displaying black drapes on Black Friday.  

      You are right about how dignified the news coverage was during the long funeral.  There was non of that fair and balanced crap.  They just covered who was in the procession and what was happening.  The eulogies and mass was covered with out break a ways except for station identification.  

      Kennedy and LBJ being in my young adult years is what made me a loyal liberal.  

  •  I was a 16 yr old high school senior (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    scheduled to play our first ever varsity football playoff game that Friday night. I was attending a new high school and was part of the first graduating class. The entire student body was brought to the gym and told that President Kennedy had been shot. We were all in shock. Our game was delayed and played the following day, on Saturday. It's one of those moments you never forget.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:22:32 PM PST

  •  I was driving to Austin (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and listening to the radio--WFAA from Dallas. I was about LaGrange when I heard he was dead. I had planned to go to his speech in Austin that night because I hadn't been able to hear him in Houston.  

    I had just left UT the previous June and had my first teaching position in Beaumont.  Since I still had a lot of friends in Kinsolving--including Lynda Johnson's roommate who was a resident advisor--that's where I went first. A lot of weeping.

    When Ruby shot Oswald, a bunch of us were playing bridge--someone said, did he just get shot?

    It was a surreal weekend. The TV was on the whole time and everyone was in some form of shock. As you say, a lot of details lost in the last fifty years but the sense of shock and loss remains.

  •  What frightens me... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    are the parallels between the hatred of Kennedy then and the hatred of Obama now.  Maybe it's worse now, because it's open hatred.  In 1963 we had anonymous extremists posting the "Wanted for Treason" flyers; now we have prominent conservatives openly accusing Obama of treason and talking about the need for a revolution.

    The same intolerance, the same bigotry, the same shameless lies; but this time it's done in public, not in the shadows.

    I remember when some of the atrocities of the Bosnian war were discovered, and again after the Rwandan genocide, feeling such despair about how little humankind seems to have learned from history.

    The enduring power of JFK is based on a wistful longing for what might have been, made more tragic by how they awful events of that day have played out and led us to where we are now.

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