Remembering JFK

john-MAINBy John Stickel
Published: Nov. 23, 2013

 

 

The flag was at half mast- that’s the first thing I noticed when they hustled us out the door.  I had never seen a flag at half mast before and it took a moment to register.  I was less than a month away from my thirteenth birthday.  I would go to bed that Friday night a frightened young boy, by Monday I would wake up to a world that had changed.

Math class had finished and I shuffled down the hallway into the art department.  The teacher was pacing around the room and said there was going to be an announcement over the PA.  The wooden speaker was mounted high up next to the blackboard.  The principal’s voice told us the news.  President Kennedy was dead and all classes had been suspended.  Nobody spoke.  I looked incredulously at the teacher and he turned away.  We were told to go home as quickly as possible and we should phone on Monday before coming to school.

That was it.  I have no memory of the ride home on a city bus except for the black woman sitting across from the driver in a maids uniform sobbing as I stepped aboard.  The driver had a small transistor radio clipped to his sun visor.  Everyone was straining to hear the broadcast coming from Dallas reporting the president was shot and had been taken to Parkland Hospital.  Kennedy had died shortly after arriving.  Governor Connelly of Texas had been shot with him and was still alive.

I moved to the back of the bus, sat down and looked out the window, there was hardly any traffic, the sidewalks empty.  Everything was in slow motion.  The radio broadcast said the military was on high alert.  A Russian conspiracy was suspected but was unconfirmed.  The bus travelled east towards Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland on the American side of Lake Erie.  I lived in an apartment building with my mother and older sister.  My parents had divorced when I was much younger and my father lived with his second wife outside of Washington DC.  My father had taken my sister and me to Washington the year before to see the Smithsonian and tour the White House. 

We bought ice cream sandwiches and baked in the Washington heat.  We were in heaven.  Caroline Kennedy’s pony Macaroni was grazing on the front lawn of the White House and my sister petted it through the iron fence rails.  Macaroni was beautiful.  Cleveland was at that time a former steel town long past its prime. 

I did not know a city could be beautiful.  Gleaming white buildings and monuments were everywhere.  The Kennedys were beautiful too.  We hoped we could get a glimpse of them.  JFK’S victory over Nixon may have been narrow in the presidential election three years earlier but crowd reaction to him bordered on hysteria.  Until Kennedy, all presidents had been old men in drab suits and ugly ties.  The media couldn’t get enough of them.  I read years later a young Bill Clinton had shaken President Kennedys hand on a visit to the White House and it, obviously, was his life changing moment.

My life changing moment with President Kennedy occurred on the day of his assassination, riding on a bus coming home from school.  When I arrived home the front door was open along with our next door neighbors and I could hear the television.   Walter Cronkite’s unmistakable voice boomed out as I rounded the corner from the front door into the living room.  The apartment reeked of turpentine and oil paint.  Our living room was more an art studio than a living room.   My mother was a painter.  I came upon my mother and Jeanie, our recently wed neighbor, standing looking at the television. Cronkite cleared his throat, looked up at the clock in the newsroom, removed his glasses and said “the president died at 12:30pm Dallas time approximately 50 min ago”; his voice cracking and he paused to compose himself.  That killed my mother. “Oh my God” she moaned under her breath and began to cry.  I had grown up on Walter Cronkite.  He had been a fearless world war two correspondent, now a rock steady news anchor, unflappable, until today.  I lost track of time until Bud, Jeanie’s new husband arrived home from work in his dirty uniform carrying an empty lunch box and a six pack of Carlings Black Label beer.  He lumbered into the living room, looked at us, glanced at the television, sighed heavily, and without speaking held out a beer to my mother and his wife and sat down.  A new update was coming across the airways.

The Dallas Police department were reporting they had a suspect in custody for the murder of Dallas patrolman J.D.Tippit and possibly the murder of Kennedy.  Tippit had been killed a few miles from Dealy Plaza where the attack on Kennedy had occurred.  Tippet had noticed a man walking down the sidewalk who matched the description given to police by employees at the Texas State Book Depository.  Police learned Lee Harvey Oswald was employed there but was missing.  Tippit had been shot four times, three times in the chest and once in the head as he attempted to leave his patrol car to question the man.  A female witness standing nearby had watched the gunman shoot Tippit, and afterwards, calmly put the gun back in his jacket and start to jog down the street towards a movie theater.  He ducked into the theater without paying during a showing of War Is Hell.  An alert attendant saw him and phoned the police who were swarming the city in search of Oswald.  They entered the theater with guns drawn.

Police reported Oswald yelled “It’s all over”! as officers moved in.  He pulled his gun and attempted to fire.  A police officer got to him first and hit him in the head.  It was over.  Since the arrest the police had kept him behind closed doors, unseen. “I hope he’s white” my mother blurted out as we listened to the latest bulletin-I looked at her for a moment as her words sank in.  My parents were civil rights activists and in an instant I knew what she meant.  

Oswald was a loner, an ex Marine, undesirably discharged, habitually unemployed, a self proclaimed Marxist, and a good shot according to his military records.  He had recently purchased a mail order Manlicher Carcano Italian army surplus rifle for $21.95 under the alias A. Hidel.  The rifle with telescopic sights was discovered poorly hidden in the depository near a corner window overlooking the motorcade route.  Near the rifle lay three spent shells and the remains of a fried chicken lunch, a literal snipers nest partially concealed by stacked cardboard boxes.

While I no longer have a Technicolor memory of November 22, 1963 I’m still carrying around in my head about a thousand black & white 8x 10s’of the tragedy.   Thumbing through my mental scrapbook on the approaching 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder I recall again if it wasn’t America’s most shocking weekend it was certainly mine.  The news went on all day repeating itself deep into the night until my mother couldn’t stand it anymore and shut off the TV.  We went to bed.  None of us had any way of guessing what tomorrow could bring.

Saturday morning began with me picking The Plain Dealer off our doorstep with the headline KENNEDY SLAIN IN DALLAS  about as tall as a Zippo lighter stamped into the front page.  A gallery of horrifying images started to come into focus -Jackie Kennedy arriving back in Washington in the bloodstained dress she refused to take off, Vice president Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as the president aboard Air force One, Kennedy’s bronze casket being unloaded with some difficulty by the Secret Service, and Johnson stating to the press he would do his best and that’s all he could do.  The cameras caught Mrs. Kennedy and her brother in law stone faced as they got into the ambulance with the casket and drove away.

 LBJ was perhaps the most ruthlessly ambitious politician in US history, a towering Texan bully that had ascended into the highest office in the land not by oratory or campaign skills but because his boss had been murdered, shot before his eyes as he rode along helplessly in a car behind.  The Kennedy family had made no secret of their disdain for him.  Kennedy had chosen him as a running mate only in an effort to gain southern votes.  The president’s brother Bobby despised Johnson. 

He was still the attorney general but working for Johnson was almost unbearable.  Bobby’s admiration of the older Kennedy could be seen in any photo of them together.  In the coming months Bobby’s grief for his dead brother left him virtually unable to work.  He spent long nights alone at his brother’s gravesite in Arlington sometimes wearing Jack’s old leather Navy jacket or overcoat.  He had become extremely close to Jackie and spent most of his time with her and her children.  His wife said she had loaned Jackie her husband and it was true.

The Cuban missile crisis a year earlier brought the US and the Soviet Union as close to war without actually going to war as was humanly possible.  US spy planes had photographed Soviet missile sites in Cuba and Kennedy’s administration demanded they be removed.  The Soviets refused.  I, like every school kid in the country had been taught how to hide under my desk and cover my head if there was a brilliant flash of light.  We practiced endlessly.  We watched newsreels of the effects of nuclear weapons.  When air raid sirens went off I would quit breathing until they stopped.  Then, ten days later, the Russians backed off; agreeing to remove their missiles and the crisis was over.  It was a huge political victory for Kennedy and we went back to our TV shows and baseball games.  

A year later the president of the United States was dead and nobody knew who was behind it.  We were terrified of war with Russia; it could be the end of the world.  The planet would be destroyed by radioactive fallout, they said.  Teachers, neighbors, politicians, even my grandfather had spoken about it. – Fear raised my mother’s voice by another octave “Maybe the killer is just a lone nutcase trying to get his name in the paper”.  It seemed bigger than that.   Something was going on but I had no idea what.  

In the afternoon Lee Harvey Oswald was charged in Dallas with the murder of officer Tippit and later that night, the murder of Kennedy.  Oswald was questioned for hours by the Dallas police and by the FBI.  He denied everything.  He was tested for gunpowder residue and the results were positive.  His palm prints were on the rifle recovered from the book depository.  Strangely, no recording or transcript of the interview was taken, either by the FBI or the Dallas police.  Oswald was placed in a holding cell in the station and would be transferred to the local jail the next day at noon.  When asked by the press, police chief Jesse Curry stated he was confident Oswald was the killer.  Maybe the case was solved.  That night, I slept a little easier.

I had spoken to my father earlier that day by telephone from Maryland and asked him if he thought Oswald did it.  My dad was a psychologist.  He thought it was possible but it was too soon to say.  Could Oswald be just some crazy guy with a gun I asked?  Yeah, he said with a sigh and a trace of anger-“Sometimes, he said, I think this fucking country is going nuts.”  I had mixed emotions about what he had said.  I hung up and went to bed. 

Sunday morning NBC was talking about how Oswald had been charged and that it appeared he had acted alone.   I invited Bud the neighbor in to get a glimpse of Oswald and watch him being transferred to jail.  Bud was dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and khaki pants and appeared genetically about 10% gorilla.

He was covered with thick wiry black hair and had a Navy tattoo on his upper right arm.  I don’t think they owned a television.  Oswald was being led down a hallway handcuffed to a detective in a white suit and a cowboy hat live on national television when a man rushed out of the crowd and shot him point blank in the ribs. 

Oswald collapsed on the floor. The cameras jerked violently in reaction to the gunshot and the TV screen went momentarily crazy.  Bedlam set in at the Dallas police station.

I sat there stunned next to the TV when Bud suddenly leapt to his feet, kicked the card table and yelled that’s a fucking mob hit! Godammit!  He stormed across the room then doubled back.  Son of a fuckin bitch!  I jerked back from him instinctively when I thought he might kick me.

 The trial of Lee Harvey Oswald was over before it started.  Oswald’s lifeless looking body was placed on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance.

Was it simply revenge or had he been silenced?  I was pretty sure Bud didn’t have any doubts.  I had never seen anyone shot before.  Nobody had ever been shot on live television.  I realized Bud had left.  My sister and mother were out.  I sat there alone trying to take it all in.

Millions of people around the world had witnessed the shooting.  It would have been the most covered trial in history.  Oswald was pronounced dead about an hour later in the same emergency room as Kennedy.  Oswald now joined Kennedy as possible victims of a conspiracy.

Later that day the Dallas police announced that Oswald had been shot by Jack Ruby the owner of a local strip club known as the Carousel.  Ruby  was well known to the police.  Ruby’s customers included off duty cops, local thugs, and the occasional out of town mobster. 

Ruby, hot tempered and prone to violence may have been just another member of Dallas’s underworld or he may have been a soldier in a crime family he owed favors to.

During his trial Ruby said he shot Oswald only to prevent Jackie Kennedy from having to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial.  Ruby was found guilty of murder and died in prison awaiting execution.  President Johnson stepped up the war effort that Kennedy appeared to be winding down. 

He appointed a commission to investigate the assassination.  Nearly a year later in 889 pages they reached the conclusion Oswald had acted alone.  Johnson knew if a conspiracy was suspected  it would throw the country into a panic.  While they suspected that the CIA and the FBI were not telling all they knew, there was not a whole lot they could do about it.  The commission had been bogged down with too much conflicting testimony and too many dead ends.  It was taking too long. 

The CIA knew Oswald had visited both the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City but claimed they didn’t know what he was doing there.  The CIA was lying.  They had recorded all his phone calls to the embassy.  They knew he was trying to get to Cuba, and when he was refused a visa, he reportedly said”he would kill Kennedy for this” and stormed out.  Oswald was known to the FBI field office in Dallas, a fact they denied for years.  He had passed an agent a note saying he would blow the place up if they didn’t stop trying to interview his Russian wife.  The agent never reported the incident and destroyed the note.  Neither agency wanted the Warren Commission to know the extent of their contact with Oswald.  He had lived in the Soviet Union but returned disillusioned to Dallas three years later.  The State Department had loaned Oswald the money to come home.  During the cold war the idea that an American citizen could move unnoticed between the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and back, is simply not true. 

If the FBI had told the Secret Service what they knew about Oswald, the assassination may have been prevented.  Johnson stated privately to friends that Fidel Castro had been the target of assassination attempts carried out by the CIA and their mafia partners.  The mob had lost a fortune in Havana when Castro’s revolution threw them out.  The CIA was working in Cuba under orders from Kennedy.  Fidel Castro was a target of Kennedy.  Years later it was revealed LBJ’s opinion was that Castro got Kennedy first.

Over the coming years conspiracy theories came and went.  Books on the assassination came out every few years with Stunning New Evidence.  Kennedy was killed either by the CIA, the Mafia, anti Castro extremists, pro Castro extremists, LBJ, the Pentagon ,Richard Nixon and the latest, in an accidental shooting by the Secret Service.  Kennedy conspiracy books had become big business.  The assassination became the world’s longest running murder mystery.  A majority of Americans believed Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy.  Deathbed confessions were revealed but never went anywhere.  I came to realize Kennedy had enemies and any of them could have done it.  Nobody agrees on how many shots were fired.  More than three means there had to be a second gunman.

We spent more and more summers north of the border with extended family and friends.  My step mother was Canadian and both my grandmothers were Canadian.  South of the border, the war in Vietnam was tearing the country apart.  Grade 12 graduates from my high school were being drafted into the military.  A few students I knew had been killed.  Muhammad Ali had refused induction into the military. ”No Vietnamese ever called me nigger” he said.  He was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title.  I marched against the war in New York City in 1965 with Martin Luther King.  He said “Negro boys were being forced to fight in Southeast Asia for rights they didn’t have in southeast Georgia”.

I spent hours in my room reading about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.  African Americans were rethinking their role in US society.  Malcolm X would die later in a hail of bullets during a speech in Harlem.  School seemed more and more irrelevant; the real classrooms were in the streets.  I hung out with teachers, musicians and campus radicals.  US troops began targeting civilians in Vietnam.  People were outraged, as the war grew bigger, Johnson sent more troops.  The media was turning against the government.  War footage dominated the evening news.  Vietcong guerrillas would attack US troops and then fade into the jungle and vanish.  Up our street a good friend’s cousin was drafted and killed in a Vietcong rocket attack.  He had arrived in Vietnam a week earlier.

 In the spring of 1967 my father told me he was being offered a teaching job at the University of Alberta.   They were going to fly him up and show him around.  He came back in a week and I knew by the look in his eyes he was finished with the US.  We would be immigrating to Canada.

Having to leave my friends behind to restart a life I had just begun seemed unthinkable.  I knew, on the other hand, America was turning against itself and the feeling of punishment gave way to the thrill of starting a new life in Canada.

In April of 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Robert F.  Kennedy was gunned down in July while running for the democratic nomination. 

My father and I were listening to the coverage on CBC went it was announced from Los Angeles he had died.  Later that November, Richard Nixon won the presidential race on a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey, a democrat, and George Wallace, the racist governor from Alabama running as an independent.  None of them won a majority.  The political comic, Mort Saul remarked Nixon won because he had lost the least.

Over the years my father and I would get together and compare notes on how it was that the US came to be so self-destructive.  Had Kennedy lived, who knows if things would have been different.  Dad, like the writer Gore Vidal felt what happened was merely the end of a long run, the American century.  He thought the US would survive, of course, it might even get better but its best days were probably behind it.  We both felt the reverse about Canada.  At a time when Nixon plotted against his real or imaginary enemies, Trudeau burst on the scene brilliant, outgoing, and filled with self-confidence.

Trudeau thought Canada could be or do anything it wanted to and a new generation decided he was right.  I don’t think about those days as much as I used to.  Kennedy’s mythology lives on.                                                                                                                                      

I’ve learned you have to be careful with memories, they have a shelf life.  Some you can’t get rid of.  With me forever will be the split second when time stopped, the cameras froze, and what survived is a picture of John F. Kennedy waving to the cheering crowds under a brilliant Texas sky. 

Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Great article…very well done!