Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering the day Kennedy was shot: Stunned beyond belief

Public domain image
I was going up the stairs into the Student Union at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on November 22, 1963, sometime after 1:00, when a friend, a fellow graduate student, ran out yelling, "Kennedy's been shot, Kennedy's been shot."  I tried to ask him something, but he kept running, frantic, arms flailing, god knows where. I walked into the building and was met by total silence. Oddly quiet. Then I saw that everyone was in front of a small black and white television set.  They sat or stood without moving, frozen like statues, made of stone. Only the colors of a parka or jacket here and there dotted a  gray canvas. I stood in the doorway of the room, shocked.  Students and professors cried. I couldn't believe what I had heard, what I was seeing. No one said a word, everybody turned inward with shock, grief.  I turned to walk back to my apartment. I have no idea how I got there.

My mind would not allow the worst to sink in. He was shot, but maybe he'll survive it.  But by the time I got home, the sad, the unthinkable news was blazoned across the country, the newscasters in as much shock as their millions of viewers. President Kennedy was dead.  Six hours later,  his body lay in a casket on Air Force One, and Lyndon Johnson became president.  "Today I ask for your help, and God's," Johnson said.  That's when the news really sank in, and the tears came.   

We were glued to the TV set for days, barely taking a break to eat or drink.  The shocks just kept coming. We saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, right in front of our eyes.  Did we really see what we just saw?  What could it mean? Who are these guys?

To this day, most of us who lived then have a hard time sorting out our feelings and all the theories about the assassination.  A single shooter, like the Warren Commission found, a crazy loser with a rifle? A CIA conspiracy?  A Mafia hit?  Hatred of the US,  by Cuba or Russia, or both?   It's continued like this for 50 years.  We may never  understand it or know the truth, but most of us would agree that it changed the trajectory of history.  It has also inspired almost as many studies, reports and books as the Civil War.  The search for answers continues.

President Obama said of Kennedy: "He captured the idealism of America."  Certainly Kennedy's youth and good looks, his vitality and intelligence, his smile and charisma, won us over, made it harder to digest his murder, to think his voice could be silenced, in a flash, in that awful way.  And why? For what reasons? What motive?

Kennedy's words lingered, linger still. His talk about a Peace Corps. His inaugural address. His speeches about civil rights.  Beautiful, graceful words. Literate, flowing, thoughtful, memorable.  Delivered with passion and compassion.  His words made such an impact on our spirit, on our dreams.

At a 50th anniversary memorial today in Dallas, historian David McCullough said it best: "Kennedy knew words mattered, and his words changed our lives, changed history."  With a salute to Ted Sorenson and all of Kennedy's speech writers, I would agree with that.  That may be, indeed, one of JFK's greatest legacies.

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