National Geographic Channel recently aired the first of several documentaries and movies about November 22, 1963. I’d like to say that date seems like yesterday, but in actuality it seems like long ago. At the time I was seventeen, a junior in high school, on the way to a debate tournament at Bradley University. We heard of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death on the car radio.
As I watched those documentaries today, I thought about how ill prepared we were for such a tragedy. And now we have lived through so many more in the
intervening fifty years. I also considered how much life has changed all around us, but those images have stayed frozen in time in our heads and in our hearts. Watching the horrified faces and tears of people outside Parkland Hospital in Dallas brings back the same feeling of grief and dread, even after fifty years.
The black and white footage shows immense changes
in media coverage. Without the technology we have today, information was sparse and often inaccurate. The President was reported to be receiving blood transfusions and his eventual death was actually disclosed by one of the priests who gave him last rites. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was reported to have had either a heart attack or been shot also. Neither report was true. Long after Lee Harvey Oswald (often called “Lee Harold Oswald” by reporters), left the Texas Book Depository, the Secret Service was still looking for him in the building because he was reportedly still there.
Besides so many inaccuracies, the way the 1963 news media operated is also startling from a 21st century perspective. The local Dallas news station shows reporters on camera smoking cigarette after cigarette and interviewing people while holding telephones to their ears–often both ears. No unseen ear phones here. The news anchor actually explained that they would have an update on Texas Governor Connolly’s condition the following morning since the news went off the air at night. [Why, oh why, did they have to invent the 24-hour news cycle?]
The news footage told me things I didn’t know. I thought that people leaving massive flowers in someone’s memory was a phenomenon of more recent times like Princess Di’s funeral. But many people left memorials for Kennedy outside Parkland Hospital and at the location where he was shot.
I also learned that a casket was brought to the hospital to transport the body, and the funeral home’s employee reported that the First Lady took off her wedding ring and put it on the President’s finger before they closed the casket. During these early hours no one knew where Lyndon Johnson was. He had been whisked away to “an unknown location” to keep him safe and he would soon be sworn in. It was ironic to hear Mrs. Rose Kennedy talking on the phone to LBJ on Air Force One and telling him how much she knew he loved her son. In the intervening years the truth of the Kennedys/Johnson relationship would say otherwise.
Finally, I didn’t realize that Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral was held in secrecy in Fort Worth with only the family attending. News men acted as pall bearers since there was no one else. It was not open to the public.
Even now, after fifty years, the images persist. It was mayhem when Kennedy was shot and his car left the motorcade and rushed him to the hospital. We have watched the home video of that scene over and over. Also seen and remembered is the footage of people waiting outside Parkland Hospital for word of the President’s condition, tears streaming down their
Even the Secret Service men were in tears, as was the judge, Sarah Hughes, while she performed the oath of office to LBJ on Air Force One. I saw the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby live since the television station covered it as he was transported to Dallas County Jail. I remember my total disbelief as I rose from a chair in our family room.
That same day we learned a new vocabulary of state funerals: the rider-less, black-draped horse with the
boots on backwards; the casket lying in state in the Capitol rotunda; the mournful notes of the funeral dirge; Mrs. Kennedy in black with her young children, and,of course, John’s salute; and the internment at Arlington Cemetery near the Eternal Flame. So many of the participants that day are now gone too.
I’m not sure my children or grandchildren will ever understand the shared grief of my generation over what we lost that day. Oh, I know we’re baby boomers and prone to re-examining and whining over the memories of our lost youth. But on November 22, we shared the total disbelief that this could happen in our country to a young, vibrant, and handsome president, leaving behind a grieving widow and two small children. We shared the loss of innocence from those three shots fired that day. We shared the loss of what might have been.
And we will always share the images of that dark procession down Pennsylvania Avenue when the world and its leaders came to Washington, D.C., and shared our loss too.