Kennedy Assassination: A Memory
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Slouching Toward Bethlehem/November 22, 2020
It was the fall semester of my junior year, exactly 57 years ago today. The first of my college mid-terms was scheduled for that afternoon: American Lit., 1885 – Present. It was a class I had particularly enjoyed, and felt comfortably prepared for the exam. The date was November 22, 1963.
Since my freshman year at Berkeley in 1961, I had worked at whatever jobs I could find, and had now found the best of those jobs. I worked in the main library’s mailroom in the basement of the huge building. Since both mail-delivery trucks and book-delivery trucks had to back up into the space we occupied, there was a huge open door that looked out across the wide lane to the back entrance of Wheeler Auditorium, where all of my large, lower-division lecture classes had taken place: Poli. Sci 1; Econ 1A; Anthro 1; and even Physics 10, taught by the “Father of the H-Bomb,” Edward Teller. But now I was an upper classman, and my classes mostly elective, were smaller, more focused. I had a good job, a good apartment, classes that I had chosen for myself, and a good feeling about the direction my life was taking.
My job in the mailroom consisted mostly of delivering books to various branch libraries on campus in exchange for books from the same branch libraries to return to the main library. I drove a small van-like truck to make the deliveries and gather the returns. In addition, I also delivered books to various offices within the library, which I did by stacking them on a double-decker, waist-high metal cart with wheels, and rolling it to my various office destinations. I’d start in the basement, then move up one floor at a time until I made the final delivery and pick-up on the 4th floor.
I had just finished stacking the books I was to deliver within the library, and was moving it through the basement corridor toward my first delivery. Although my mind was on the upcoming mid-term, I felt confident and at ease. As I began pushing the cart through what was usually a throng of students on their way to or from classes, I was suddenly aware that something was different, something was not right. There was no throng; instead, small groups of students were huddled together here and there, and I could hear the sounds of muffled tears. As I passed one group of four or five students in a group embrace, I asked, “What’s going on.”
“They’ve killed Kennedy!” someone said. The words did not register.
“Kennedy’s been assassinated in Dallas,” one of the young women cried.
It took a moment for reality to dawn before I, too, was overcome with emotion, and stood alone trying to keep myself from crying.
Three years before, at the age of 17, I had had the unique experience of attending the Democratic Convention that had nominated John. F. Kennedy to be their standard bearer. And, although I had been a passionate partisan for Adlai Stevenson, I had no hesitation throwing myself into the campaign on behalf of the attractive young Senator from Massachusetts. Though too young to vote, I was not too young to knock on doors, hand out campaign literature, and speak to anyone who would listen. My passion was fueled not only by being for someone, but equally powerful, by my antipathy to whom he was running against: the Vice-President of the United States. Richard Nixon, the dark, brooding Californian, was the embodiment in the House of Representatives of what Joseph McCarthy was in the Senate. Their demagogic anti-Communist crusade had defined the era of my earliest years. Indeed, while at the Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, I had joined a group of young people stomping on a poster of Nixon on the ground.
Kennedy marked a decisive turn, as if America had declared with his election that we were more eager for an energetic, youthful future than nostalgic for a staid and passive past. And now, suddenly, all that exuberant hope seemed to dissipate, like air from a punctured balloon.
The strange thing about that day is that I remember nothing else except showing up for the exam later. I can only assume from the distance of nearly 60 years, that I was in a state of shock, and kept to my routine as a way of getting through it. When I arrived at the lecture hall where the exam was to take place, I found fewer than half a dozen other students sitting there, mostly with their heads down. Scrawled across the blackboard in large letters were the words: “Kennedy Killed. Exam Cancelled.” I must have walked home in a fog, because I remember nothing else, until…
I retreated to the home in the Oakland hills of the family that had taken me in as one of their own two years earlier. I had met Mary in my freshman English 1A class. She was older, a married woman with three children who, when I accepted my first invitation to dinner, took to me like a long-lost uncle. Brett, the oldest boy, was 13 and deaf. He was a hellion who used his deafness to great effect, simply closing his eyes when he wanted to avoid a scolding or any message he did not want to “hear.” I adored him. His two brothers, Bobby and Tommy, 9 and 5 respectively, were wonderful kids. On this day, though, we were not enjoying the exuberance of the children. They were outside playing. Mary and Bill, her husband, were in the kitchen putting together something we could all eat without having to sit down together, because, like the rest of the country, we were also glued to the television. Everything seemed to be at pause; no one knew what was coming; no one knew quite what to do or what it might mean. The country waited…
Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been arrested the day of the assassination after fatally shooting a Dallas police officer who had tried to apprehend him. Now, two days later, I was watching the TV as a handcuffed Oswald was being led out of the Dallas Jail, presumably to court. A crowd of men pressed close around him. Many were Dallas police officers who, I had no doubt, wished to see Oswald dead for having killed one of their own.
And then, suddenly, they got their wish. Right there in front of my eyes, and the eyes of millions of other viewers, a man in the crowd only inches from Oswald fired a gun. We all could hear the shot, and see Oswald grimace in pain and buckle. I heard myself yell, “No!” as if that could undo what had just happened. It was the first time I had ever seen a man shot and killed (but not the last), and the two-day-old shock that had begun to wear off took me again. My stomach tightened, and whatever food Bill and Mary had been preparing in the kitchen was forgotten about, as the three of us camped out together in their den to see what would happen next. Two days after the President was murdered, on a Sunday, while listening to the muffled drums and the reassuring voice of Walter Cronkite solemnly describing the quiet national funereal parade along Pennsylvania Avenue: a riderless horse, a small boy saluting the catafalque on which his dead father’s coffin lay, a woman of breeding and class draped in black. It felt as if the seams of a country we thought we knew were being torn apart.
Dallas became the butt of jokes, though nobody was laughing:
“How did the elephant escape from the Dallas Jail?”
“It walked out.”
The unraveling had begun. Lyndon Johnson became the President, and – despite some major accomplishments in Voting Rights, Civil Rights, and programs addressing poverty – what had been a hardly-noticed sideshow in Vietnam took center stage, eclipsing all other issues. The “what-ifs” would be endlessly debated, but the “what we got” was an ever-widening war, fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and colonial hubris. It engendered a huge protest movement – to the war, to the election of Richard Nixon, whose Watergate crimes we thought, until now, had exposed the depths of subversion a President could threaten the country with, to Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal, to the sharp rightward turn of the country, and, ultimately, to where we are today. As gratifying as President-Elect Biden’s victory is over the mentally unbalanced and dangerous outgoing President, Donald Trump, we are a country at war with itself, a house divided.
The course of history can only be seen in the rear-view mirror. The events of tomorrow can not be known today. Will we see the peaceful inauguration of a new President next January? Will some unforeseen international event move us in a direction we cannot imagine? Will Trump, still the President, find a reason to go to war? Will he declare Martial Law and attempt a first-ever coup d’état ? With more guns than people in this country – mostly in the hands of Trump partisans – these are the scariest times of my life.
At the beginning of November, 1963, we thought we knew in which direction the country was heading. By the end of that month, by the act of a single armed mentally unbalanced man, all the props had been pulled out from under us, and nothing was ever certain again.
As for tomorrow, I make no predictions.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats (1919)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?