Sunday, November 24, 2013

After Camelot

After Saturday's rain, Sunday, November 24, 1963, dawned clear and crisp. It was the Last Sunday after Pentecost - as we then called it. So (as with virtually everyone else I knew) the day started with Sunday Mass. My grandmother, as usual, went to early Mass at 7:00 or maybe 6:00. My sister Linda, then in 3rd grade, attended the 9:00 "Children's Mass." I attended the High Mass at 11:00. And then my parents went to the 12:10. Sunday Dinner followed as usual.

But that was about all that was usual about that day. Like most Americans, we spent most of the afternoon transfixed by the television. The highpoint of the day was not Mass or dinner but the live coverage of the 45-minute military procession carrying President Kennedy's coffin from the White House to the Capitol, followed by the simple ceremony in the rotunda, the long lines of citizens paying their respects, and as the evening drew on the various foreign dignitaries arriving at the airport for the following day's state funeral. And, throughout it all, regular replays of the jarring scene earlier that day in Dallas, when the President's assassin was himself shot in the police station, while the world watched on live television. I remember greeting my parents at the door with the shocking news when they came home from Mass. That Sunday and Monday were meant to be - and largely were - dignified days of stately ceremony. But the weekend's second assassination seemed to lift the veil from all that dignity and stateliness and uncover something ugly - and a frightening foretaste of the darker future soon to descend upon our country.

But back to dignity and stateliness! The centerpiece of the day's Kennedy coverage was, of course, the procession from the White House to the Capitol. (One can now watch that procession, thanks to  YouTube. It can be accessed at 

The coverage began abruptly with the flag-covered coffin being caried out of the White House, followed immediately by Mrs. Kennedy, in proper black, holding the hands of her two children, in matching powder-blue coats (as we were duly told by the TV commentator since, of course, most of us were watching it in black and white). Once the coffin was in place on the military caisson, the cortege quickly got moving up Pennsylvania Avenue. Unlike the bigger, more musical procession the next day, Sunday's procession was dominated by the seemingly endless  sound of muffled drums. The somber sound monotonously matched the somber images. Then, when the cortege arrived at the Capitol, the mourners all got out of their cars, the military guard came to attention, and the familiar ruffles and flourishes followed. As a 21-gun salute boomed, Hail To the Chief was played in "dirge time" - i.e., 88 beats per minute instead of the usual 120. The effect was among the most memorable of the entire weekend. Hail To the Chief would be played four times that Sunday and Monday, and even now when I hear it played for other Presidents on other occasions, I often just can't help but remember that November weekend.

After Hail To the Chief, the Naval Hymn accompanied the carrying of the coffin up the steps of the East Front of the Capitol and into the Rotunda. There, after Senator Mansfield's sentimental speech and two other otherwise unmemorable speeches, came the famous moment when Jackie and Caroline knelt at the bier and kissed the flag. 

The dignity and solemnity of such ceremonies took some of the edge off the rawness of the nation's emotions. But those emotions were never far from the surface. America has been known at tense times in our history to foster on its margins a paranoid conspiratorial mentality, that reinforces the corrosive cynicism that continues to undermine American society. Oswald's murder lent superficial credence to that tendency. Despite the lack of any serious supporting evidence, then or since, the tendentious view that Oswald didn't act alone and was part of some bigger conspiracy can still be heard 50 years later. It seems hard for some to accept the prosaic fact that such a national calamity could have no transcendent explanation and was instead the act of some otherwise uninteresting nobody - "a silly little communist" as Jackie Kennedy famously called him. 

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