Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

It was 50 years ago today, Friday, November 22, 1963, around 2:00 p.m. I was sitting in my 3rd-year, high school English class. It was the last-period, and the end-of-the-day announcements had already been made, when the intercom came on again. Fr. G, the principal, asked us to keep in our prayers (at which point I remember wondering what student's parent perhaps had died) "the President of the United States, who has been shot." Fr, H., our teacher, said, "I thought they didn't do that in this country." Minutes later, at 2:15, the bell rang, and we headed out to our lockers and home. Engaging in adolescent speculation with some classmates about what might happen next, I headed down Andrews Avenue to Fordham Road and along Fordham to University Avenue, where I lived across the street from the church. 
So began that memorable weekend. Once home, I turned on the radio and then anticipating the defining role that television was going to play in our country that weekend, turned on the TV. After Walter Cronkite's famous announcement that President Kennedy had died "at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago." I told my grandmother the news, then returned to the TV where some talking head was speculating about similarities to the turn-of-the-century anarchist assassinations (which had included President William McKinley in 1901, as well as Austria's Empress Elizabeth in 1898 and Italy's King Umberto I in 1900).
It's strange the things that one remembers! I remember so vividly, as if it were yesterday, going down to help my mother bring up the groceries and the baby carriage my sister Christine was in. And my father coming home from work, with a final-edition newspaper of the New York Journal American, printed pre-assassination. Shortly after he got home, however, we looked out the window and saw another, post-assassination edition arrive, its terrible headline in letters large enough that we could read it four floors up. My father sent me down to buy another paper to keep as a remembrance of the day. (I still have it.) Then just before supper, in what would become a defining part of the weekend's routine, we all gathered in front of the TV to watch the President's coffin unloaded from Air Force One followed by Jackie in her blood-stained pink outfit, and then listened to the new President's first words to the nation that concluded, "I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask your help, and God's."
It is conventional to treat that date as one of those days  after which everything changed. Immediately, of course, other than the change in Presidents, very little obviously changed. It is really only in retrospect that we look back on that date as a kind of boundary, marking the beginning of a much more questioning, much less trusting, much less hopeful, much less united America. At the time, in fact, America was never more united than it was that weekend, with almost the entire country glued to the TV, almost everyone simultaneously seeing and experiencing the same thing. And that unity would persist politically - despite the divisiveness of the Goldwater campaign - through the 1964 election with its monumental landslide victory for LBJ and the launch of the Great Society. Only later did it all very visibly start to fall apart.
Television - especially network news - came into its own that weekend. And from its powerful position - a position from which it would not be dislodged for decades - television would be a major player in the monumental changes that were then just around the corner.
But, for the moment, that future remained hidden. Most people reacted in intelligibly conventional ways. That next day, Saturday, was a rainy day on the East Coast. Television covered the comings and goings of the important people, dressed in black, arriving at the White House throughout the course of the day to pay their respects to the president lying "in repose" in the East Room, where two priests kept prayerful vigil. That Saturday afternoon, I went to confession, and was told to offer my penance for the repose of the president's soul. Roman Catholicism - then at the height of its post-war American Golden Age - would also be on national display as never before. And, much as we lamented the tragic circumstance that occasioned it, I suspect we all took some pride in the prominence of Catholic ritual and language in the nation's very public, communal mourning.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is a wonderful post! I was a senior in a Catholic high school in Chicago. You make a good point about the unity that the television facilitated. My memories of the day and ensuing days are quite similar to yours.