Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The day America lost its way. 11/22/63

               It was my eleventh birthday. A Friday. I had conned my Mother into letting me stay home from school. I had pulled a con on her the details of which are long forgotten. My Father was working second shift at North American Aviation here in Columbus Ohio. He was home on that early afternoon.

I was upstairs in the room I shared with my younger brother who had not been thrilled I was staying home and he wasn't.

I was probably reading when I heard my Dad call out for me to come downstairs. I tried to remember if I had done something to get in trouble. I couldn't recall anything and headed downstairs to the bedroom that had become the TV room.

Dad was in his easy chair, a lit Pall Mall in one big hand, a cup of coffee in the other. The smoke from the cigarette and steam from the coffee mingled and drifted off. He was leaning forward, attention fixed on the black and white TV. Mom was standing next to him, clutching a dish towel like a lifeline.

Dad looked at me and said,"Tommy, the President has been shot."

Even then I was an incurable smart ass and said something only I thought was funny. His glare told me I'd best pay attention. I looked at the TV to see Walter Cronkite talking about shots fired at the motorcade in Dallas.The only time I'd seen my parents that concerned had been in October of 1962 as America was bracing for a likely nuclear war with the Soviets. I parked my skinny ass on the floor and watched as confusion and shock played out from the CBS newsroom.

Cronkite removed his horn rimmed glasses,appeared to wipe away a tear and told America that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of The United States of America was dead.

Mom and Dad were silent. Maybe in shock. Jack was only a couple years older than my Dad. Mom and Jackie were about the same age. She was also Catholic.

Like the rest of America we were glued to that big 19" B&W TV. About 2;30 Dad headed off to his shift building Naval Aircraft. I never heard him talk about how work was that day. My sister, seven years younger than me, was wondering around being the pain in the ass sisters are when we're that age.

We need to remember this was before Cable news, hell it was before cable. Print was still King. There were three networks. All had broken into programming with continuous coverage. That was a first.

That was a time when NBC. CBS and ABC had vibrant news divisions.These news divisions were staffed by actual journalists, not news readers. Not talking heads. Many had started in print and cut their teeth covering WWII. CBS was the best.They had Murrow's Boys. In spite of what is now primitive technology, these men gathered facts, first hand and reported the news. They did this in spite of their shock, grief and disbelief this could happen here. Sure they reported a few things wrong because of the confusion and shock in official Dallas.

A young Dan Rather reported from the Dallas CBS affiliate. The phone lines in Dallas were jammed by traffic without computers to reroute calls.CBS, NBC and ABC would stay on the air covering the story for the next four days. There would be no Bonanza. No Ed Sullivan. No commercials. Just TV and America trying to come to grips with what had happened.

In these days before the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the instant media we relied on Newspapers, Radio and Television to try to put the pieces of our shattered reality back into a semblance of order.  This quite possibly may have been TV news' finest moment as it groped and floundered to find it's way. Just like the rest of us. Through the chaos of that awful day the firm, resonant voice of Cronkite spoke to the soul of a reeling nation. He later said it was ,"a running battle between my emotion and my news sense."

Over at NBC Chet Huntley and Frank McGee helmed that Network's coverage. Huntley was more out spoken than Cronkite and said, with righteous indignation and bitterness, he spoke of ,"Pockets of hatred in our country and places where the disease is encouraged, you have heard those who say,'Those Kennedy's ought to be shot'...It seems evident that hatred moved the person who fired these shots..."

All the networks showed the shock, grief and confusion of the people. It was as if we were all together mourning the unimaginable. A nation united in mind numbing sadness and soul deadening misery. Clips of people in tears unable to express the depths of their shock and sorrow were shared. It showed us all we were not alone. The people of The United States were stunned into a grievous, pain filled silence. Lost. Immobile.

ABC aired film of JFK's arrival at Love Field and his reception in Fort Worth that morning. Kennedy was welcomed by excited throngs. Jackie was wearing her Pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat. A suit that was burned into the collective memory of that day.
She carried red roses with her, a gift. Later the red of those roses would be replaced by the crimson of her husband's blood. She was still wearing that suit as her Husband's coffin was loaded onto Air force One and Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office.

 She stood there in elegant grief as LBJ took the reins of power while her husband's body lay in the hold, ready for it's last trip on the Presidential aircraft. Johnson ordered the plane into the air and back to DC. America calmly transferred power in the midst of tragedy. That in itself helped to allay the nation's fears and show a sense of purpose as reality attempted to bleed back in as no one knew at that time why this had happened.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk who was en route to Japan had his plane turned around over the Pacific and headed back to Washington. No one was sure if there was an attack coming or not. The military scrambled aircraft and SAC's B-52's went on high alert. Fidel Castro put the Cuban Military on alert also, expecting an invasion as America roiled in grief looking for something to do. Something to lash out at, right or wrong.

The 707 lifted off from Love Field and flew back to DC carrying the body of the 35th President and the newly installed 36th President.

There were statements from the powerful across America. Harry Truman extolled JFK and reassured the nation LBJ was quite capable of doing the job.Later Ike would say he was shocked, dismayed and indignant that such a tragedy occurred. Americans had common sense and would not be bullied or stampeded.

TV showed the crowds outside Parkland Hospital. They showed photos of the bystanders going to ground in Dealy Plaza as the shots rang out. We saw the Texas School Book Depository. We heard from witnesses to the murder.

General Douglas MacArthur said JFK's death,"Killed something in me." Adlai Stevenson, the old liberal who rocked the Russians back on their heels at the UN in '62 said,"All men everywhere who love peace and justice and freedom will bow their heads. He also said,"It's too bad that. in my old age, they couldn't have spent their violence on me and spared this young man for our nation's work."

Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force Base a bit after Six. We watched as the coffin was moved off the plane by fork lift. It was placed into a Cadillac ambulance by a full dress Honor Guard. Jackie stepped out. She would never be far from Jack during this. She still wore the blood stained Pink Chanel suit. An aide assisted her down off the lift. She was elegant and serene in her sorrow. Bowed but not broken by tragedy. She was given the compassion we are capable of at our best.

As the ambulance drove off LBJ and Lady Bird exited the 707 to the flashing strobe of the press. He made his first public statement as America's 36th President.

"This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that can not be weighed. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and God's." At 6'4" Johnson was an imposing figure there on that tarmac with that symbol of Presidential power, Air Force One in the background. He struck the perfect tone to help soothe our frayed and shattered collective psyche.

The news broke that a suspect had shot and killed a Dallas Police Officer, J.D. Tippet. Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24 year old former marine and political dissident was arrested inside the Texas Theater. A rifle and sniper's nest had been found on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository.
Oswald was paraded into custody. A Detective held the rifle aloft as if he were wading a stream. Information of Lee's past began leaking out. The press learned Oswald had defected to the USSR and had married a Russian before returning to the States. Lee claimed he was not involved and was a patsy. This all played out on TV giving us a ringside seat to the circus that was Dallas.

The afternoon papers had hit the streets using type that was reserved for national tragedies such as war. We discovered that the print media could not keep up with TV. Print was stale as soon as it came out passed by televised updates. Late Friday night Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.                                                                                                                                                       
 It was not a Federal crime in 1963.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             On Saturday the coverage continued. The unblinking eye of television cameras caught everything. Held it.

The Dallas Police produced the mail order firearm bill of sale for the Carcano rifle. It was ordered in the name of A.J. Hidell an alias that was linked to Oswald. Lee had demanded an attorney, asking for the counsel of the American Communist party or an ACLU lawyer.The Communist Party Lawyer was out of town and Oswald repeatedly refused representation by local counsel. During interrogation on 11/22 and 11/23 he gave statements with significant differences. 

Meanwhile in DC, early Saturday morning, John Kennedy's body was laid in state in the East Room of the White House on a catafalque similar to the one that held Lincoln's casket nearly a century before. At ten-thirty the local family attended a private Mass in the East Room. 

Later the VIP's started arriving. Presidents Eisenhower and Truman. President Johnson and other members of Washington's and America's power elite. They were joined by military leaders, members of both Congressional Houses and close family friends.

President Johnson conferred with Secretary of State Rusk and then Defense Secretary McNamara. It showed America the Federal Government was functioning. 

We heard from world leaders. The TV images were beamed down by Telstar and the other few telecommunication satellites.

We witnessed images of Pope Paul IV praying that " the death of this great statesman may not damage the cause of the American people,but rather reinforce it." Soviet Premier Khrushchev paid condolences in person at the American Embassy in Moscow.

We saw the grieving crowds outside the Embassy in London, the French,Germans and Italians weeping on camera over the death of a uniquely American head of State via satellite. The world shared our devastating sorrow over the loss of this Irish American. We would never see such an outpouring of universal despair again.

General Charles DeGaul of France announced he would attend the Funeral. He was joined by 19 other heads of State, three Monarchs and Prince Phillip of The United Kingdom.

Richard Nixon spoke praising the man who denied him the Presidency in 1960 and called for an end to the hatred behind his death. I make no judgement on the sincerity of Nixon or sworn enemies George Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his presumed opponent in '64 praised Jack.

There were comments from the other side also. China announced there would be no regrets expressed by them. There was the usual typically American hateful, ignorant remarks. An unnamed caller from Little Rock Arkansas told Chet Huntley, on the phone, on the air, to drop dead.

We watched it all non stop in black and white. 

On the twenty-third President Lyndon Johnson declared Monday November 25,1963 as a National Day Of Mourning. The Dallas Police said they had the evidence to convict Oswald of killing Jack Kennedy.

 The next day in Dallas, Oswald was being moved to the County jail. Live on TV we watched in horror as a man pushed out of the crowd of press in the garage of DPD HQ and shot Lee Harvey Oswald to death. Ruby denied us the trial we so desperately needed to close the book on this horrific event. We never got the answers from the only man that had them.We never got the overworked concept of closure.

 Ruby's summery execution of Oswald spawned the conspiracy cottage industry.

Jack Ruby, a Dallas strip club owner with very marginal ties to the mob was subdued and arrested. It seemed the blood would never stop. The horror seemed unending.

That same day President Kennedy was moved to the Capitol Building to lie in State in the Rotunda. 

The procession was about to start as Lee bled out on a Dallas garage floor. He was pronounced dead in the same ER as Jack. It was all televised. 

The procession started down Pennsylvania Ave. Jackie, hauntingly regal and composed in her despair. The children. Bobby, looking as if his world had collapsed around him. His pain and despair was stark. A nation of 180,000,000 shared his pain.

The route was lined by mourning citizens. The riderless horse Blackjack. A horse drawn caisson.  The clatter of hooves on an asphalt avenue. Martial music. Pomp and circumstance.

In the Rotunda the coffin rests on the catafalque that held Lincoln. Jackie, in her serene sadness takes her place. Young Caroline is by her side.The Honor Guard takes their position to guard and honor their fallen Commander-In-Chief.

We watch through the camera, seeing all. Senate Majority Mike Mansfield speaks. Then Chief Justice Earl Warren. House Speaker John McCormack.

We see Bobby standing there mourning the loss of his brother, his grief and despair palpable.

LBJ follows a soldier who places a wreath on the coffin for him. The former First Lady, along with her young daughter, kneels, kisses the flag, as does Caroline. They then withdraw. President Johnson speaks to Jackie. Then it's over for them for the moment. The long river of Ebony limo's flows away into the depths of DC.

Now, America says farewell to Jack.The line eventually stretches five miles, farther than the omnipresent camera can see. An estimated 250,000 Americans pass through to bid farewell to John Kennedy. A cross section of this diverse nation. African Americans in a city that is still not friendly to them mourn lost promise. Men. Women. White, black. Nuns and laymen. America weeps, it's soul shaken. Waits were as long as ten hours to pay respects. None seemed to care about time. It stood still in the marble silence.

Dignitaries begin arriving at Dulles and Andrews.

NBC stayed on the air all night as we mourned what might have been.

On Monday the twenty-fifth, the cortege, a full Military Funeral procession brought John Kennedy to the White House for the last time.

At 11:13 the new President, VIP's, world leaders and assorted dignitaries started the long walk to St. Matthew's Cathedral. The camera and America strides along in solemn unity.

The Low Pontifical Mass is said by Cardinal Cushing. A 180,000,000 Americans knelt along in prayer.

Outside, as the coffin appears, John-John salutes his father. A moment that melted the heart of a great nation. A now iconic sight and memory etched into our collective consciousness.

At Arlington national Cemetery, the Irish Guard stands at Parade Rest by the yawning grave. It seemed our hopes and dreams were buried along with that young, visionary that day.

Those four days fifty years ago changed this Nation in ways we only now understand. The rise of TV as our cultural touchstone. The now instant access to the world was rising then. Tragedy after tragedy was slammed home over the next decade with the force of a historical tsunami. The nation nearly dissolved in the sixties as divisiveness rent our institutions. And the camera caught it all.

To those of us of a certain age those four days are a break point between then and now. 

Fifty years later we stand before the judgement of history falling so short of what Jack Kennedy saw as the American potential. Equality. Freedom. Dignity, not based on your social status or checkbook. A nation where those born to privilege knew there was no higher calling than public service. Enrichment at the expense of the nation's well being was not what JFK saw as he challenged us to excel.

He believed in our innate goodness, our potential to lead the world to a better future where people are lifted out of poverty and ignorance. Where one citizen's vote carries the same weight and value as any other vote. 

Something broke in our spirit that day. 

Today the virulent hatred directed at Jack Kennedy is seen as a mission from a God none of us seem to recognize anymore. The Government devised with the blood of progressive revolution to throw off colonial oppression is seen by some as a holy war to preserve the status quo. Some seem to want a return to far less enlightened times. They wish to impose their narrow, uncharitable views on all of us. Far too many have lost the ideals and promise JFK extolled replacing it with a venal theocratic, oligarchic world view.

Listen to what Jack said. Listen to the power of belief in a brighter future he spoke of. He challenged us to do better. We have failed. Reduced to fighting the old wars anew. Battling to save hard won freedoms.

One can only imagine what we lost that day.

One can only weep for what should have been. 

And dream of Camelot.

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