Remembering the death of John F. Kennedy
"We were so innocent in 1963
It seemed as if no one had misbehaved except President Kennedy..."
I have never shaken the feeling that things changed on November 22, 1963, that violence became the norm so that today we have mass shootings in abundance, at the same time as we are eating popcorn and watching movies that sensationalize graphic cruelty and violence. My play, Oswald's Chin (http://www.dianasaenz.com/...) is summarized, as "the degeneration of American morality since the death of President Kennedy." I wrote that play twenty years ago, and in the numerous rewrites that piece has undergone, I have have yet to change a word of this statement.
Even with a much better knowledge of American history that I had in 1963, it is evident that violence had existed all along, for Black people, for the working class who had fought bloody battles for an eight-hour day and for basic rights. The horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in in Newton Connecticut that upset the country earlier this year was surely not met with the same shock and surprise that American must have felt in 1927 when Andrew Kehoe, murdered his wife, killed 38 children, 6 adults and injured 58 people before blowing himself up in Bath Township, Michigan.
To a fourteen-year-old however, the 60's was a decade of assassinations in the USA. It saw the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and even the leader of the American Nazi Party, George L. Rockwell. But of course, what started it all was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Friday November 22, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, and in some ways, it is clearer to me now than it was then.
It was Friday morning, November 22, 1963. We were in our 9th grade English class, looking forward to the weekend. My parents were planning to take a little time for themselves and go out for dinner and a drink to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary. Suddenly the school intercom system crackled to life and we listened to the voice of the principal of my Junior High School announce that the President had been shot while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Ten minutes later the principal came on again and with a quaver in her voice let us know that the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was dead. We all sat in stunned disbelief, except for one girl who burst into tears and cried loudly and endlessly. No one thought to comfort her. The English teacher cursed and swiped violently at the air. All this seemed right and normal in lieu of what we had just heard.
In the hall it was pandemonium. Girls were crying and hugging each other, a boy ran down the hall slamming into others and shouting, "They killed the President! They killed Kennedy!" I overheard one girl declare that she was glad her father hadn't gone to Dallas after all, because he really hated Kennedy. We were sent home to be with our families.
I walked home in a daze not knowing what to think, not believing that it could be true, that this man I had watched debate Nixon, this man my parents had chosen to run the country, this man with a pretty wife who spoke Spanish and French, and dressed like a model, was gone forever. When I got home, my mother was sitting in the darkened living room watching the television with our next-door neighbor. This is how we began the longest week-end of our lives.
On Sunday, November 24, as preparations were being made to lay Kennedy in state for public viewing, my parents and I watched in horror as Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down on nationwide television. It is hard to imagine that it has been fifty years since November 23, 1963. For some of us is was a coming of age moment. For the country it was a turning point in our history where any cover that we had managed to hold over eyes was ripped off. It was as if we were suddenly joined to the world, where horrible things that are splashed in the news become deeply personal, life-changing and irrevocable.
It felt as if that day marked the day that violence in America would begin and never end. I believe that moment was hard-wired into the collective mind of my generation, that we took it with us, to the streets, to the campuses, and to the ten-year war that followed in Southeast Asia--the very one that JFK had done his best to prevent. It is probable that the Vietnam War would never have occurred if Kennedy had lived--that Kennedy's death was the butterfly effect that changed the course of recent history.
I believe that the day JFK was murdered is still with us today. As the Boomer generation gradually fades away, the legacy of that single moment will continue to live on in the collective conscious and unconscious, and in the individual actions of the American people.