In Ireland in 1976, 13 years after the event, my friend and I saw twin photographs in almost every home where we were invited in for tea and buttered bread; in either the kitchen or sitting room, the Pope and John Kennedy looked down at us. In Ireland Kennedy had become the martyred saint. For many years he filled that position for our family too.
I remember this about his run in 1960: he visited Reading, the anti-Catholic vitriol of some neighborhood kids was palpable, and my parents and grandmothers and aunts and the nuns who taught us loved him and Jackie. He was of our Catholic tribe and our Irish blood. I do not remember any cynicism about him. We had not yet become jaded. Our ardor was unspoiled.
November 22, 1963 fell on a Friday. My older brother and sister were attending Central Catholic HS, located half-way up one of the mountains that shelter Reading, PA. I was in 5th grade at Sacred Heart Grammar school. We all remember how we learned of the President’s assassination, as does everyone I have ever met who was then old enough to make sense of the news.
My wife was on the playground during recess. Her teacher, a tall, slender woman, blew her whistle and the children fell into place in rows of two, still chattering and laughing, and then the teacher shouted, “Stop! Stop! Be Quiet. Don’t you know that the President has been shot.” My brother “was in 7th period AP Chemistry when it was announced over the PA system that he had been shot. During 8th period U.S. History it was announced that he was dead. The history teacher was Mr. DiNunzio. He was an excellent teacher and directed the class in a discussion of the event and what was happening within the US government.”
Catholic Nuns praying at the site of Kennedy’s assassination on 11.25.63.
My older sister walked about a mile to 5th and Penn to catch the bus home. She remembers a terrible silence in the heart of what was then a vibrant city of 100,000 people. My teacher, Sister Angelique, was called to the door by a knock. The Mother Superior was outside. She stepped into the hall and closed the door. When she came back inside, she looked as if she had lost all sense of command and authority. For a moment, we saw the young woman who lived inside the elaborate dark blue dress and veil and the starched white coif and wimple. Her voice was unsteady, her eyes wandering. She said simply, “The President has been shot. Pray for him. You’re going home.”
Everyone everywhere watched TV. My younger sister can still see our mother “sitting on the edge of the sofa quietly crying as we watched.” Walter Cronkite led us through the insane aftermath. His was a voice of clarity and immense credibility, but he too had trouble holding his grief apart from his role as a newsman.
Mrs. Kennedy accompanying the hearse containing the President’s body to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy.
Few images from the next two days have stayed with me — only a general layer of bulletins and black and white figures moving about on the screen. Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby on Sunday, the 24th. We may have witnessed the shooting, but I cannot remember. We all lived within a kind of shocked, numb, horrified state, and at eleven years of age I can not be clear on what I had seen that weekend. All I felt was that something had ended. I could not have explained what I meant by that that then any better than I can do so now.
On Sunday afternoon, the 24th, his funeral took place. How condensed in time and space all this had been, as if the entirety of the seventy-two hours had been captured in one compressed rush on an uninterrupted scroll, and now we were coming to its end. Many of Aristotle’s elements of classical tragedy had been met – the hero, an authentic warrior, had been struck down in his prime. From the spectacle of the motorcade to the spectacle of the funeral, this had been an action complete in itself, one that was dramatic in every part, whose elements of suspense, reversal, pity, and fear could not have been arranged for a more cathartic effect. And we all sat, immobile, awe-struck, silent, watching, the collective witnesses to a progression of events we could not have imagined.
The caisson, that antique — that image made the strongest impression upon me. It was as if the 20th century had relinquished all its speed for an afternoon. The viewer had time to think, to feel, to become immersed in the eloquence of a collective, ceremonial grief. The President’s body processed at a slow walk in the iron, brilliant light of a cold day.
Fifty years later I have come to few conclusions: I have little patience with contra-factual historical speculation – no one knows what Kennedy would have done had he lived. The evidence seems overwhelming that Oswald alone murdered the President.* In photographs from those days, Jackie Kennedy’s tormented face retains the power to call forth my powerless sympathy.
In retrospect, for me, Kennedy’s death seems like an origin story – this is when I began to understand the capricious nature of actions in the enormous world outside my tiny life in West Lawn, Pennsylvania. This skinny man, Oswald, wearing a stained t-shirt, an ordinary man I might have seen driving a milk truck or behind the counter at a sandwich shop, had caused everything to lurch out of place. He had disrupted my child’s sense of order and safety. He was the worm in the apple coiling out before my young eyes.
5000 copies of this flyer were distributed in Dallas the week before the President’s arrival.
Now, more aware of the hatred that had waited for him in Dallas, that of both one man and of an entrenched cut of its community, I wonder about forces of history beyond our ken and about causes and effects that lie just outside our ability to see. I think about the echoes of dark intentions that still permeate our Republic. I think some part of me is still holding his breath and waiting.
*Two books have convinced me that Oswald was the lone shooter and that there was no conspiracy:
Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi and Case Closed by Gerald Posner.