THE FIRST FOUR DAYS
Though unreliable, patchy, faded and embossed, some of my memories of that November Friday and the following weekend remain keen as sunlight glinting off an icy pond, even if they’re not particularly unique among my age group, race, or class.
I was nine years old, a fourth grader at George Washington Elementary School, situated about halfway between the village of Mohegan Lake and our house on Red Mill Road, Westchester County, New York.
I was returning from lunch at the school cafeteria through the crowded hallway and sensed some sort of excitement. Some other kid cried out, maybe a sentence with the word “shot” in it.
I arrived back in my fourth grade class. My peers were in an uproar. I asked what was going on. A classmate named Stephen Grabiner, turned to me, his mouth gaping, his eyes wide:
“President Kennedy was shot fifteen minutes ago!”
I don’t recall how I reacted to this news.
The seats in our class of around twenty students were arranged in a square, with two desks in the middle, occupied, I think, by a rotating cast of miscreants, the equivalent of sitting in the corner.
The day’s lessons were stopped as we sat at our desks (mine was in front of the window, facing into the room.) A radio broadcast was piped in over the PA system.
I remember two moments: When the announcer stated that weapon appeared to have been a high-powered rifle, the girls seated directly across from me shrieked and jumped in their seats.
Then finally, there came a brief silence and the announcer, his voice collapsing, said simply, “He’s dead.”
After that, there’s a blank until the three-thirty bell clanged to send us home and we all jumped from our desks chattering excitedly. Our teacher, Mrs. Kaplan, admonished us to quiet down, that “a famous man has just been killed today.”
As I sat on the bus home, a kid in front of me yelled to another: “You know what the newspaper headlines are gonna say? ‘President Kennedy Shot in the Head!’”
The bus driver yelled at him to shut up. Maybe I would have been better off walking home. It wasn’t that far.
My father was long gone, my mother was working late at the Peekskill Public Library, and so I was home alone with the TV for the rest of the afternoon. Around dusk, my oldest brother Chris stormed through the kitchen door.
I stood in the doorway to the den and innocently asked “What do you think?”
“It’s disgusting!” he shouted in the way only Burchfield men could yell.
The Peekskill Evening Star headline that evening read “President Kennedy Shot in Dallas,” with no mention of his being dead. When I read it, I may have felt some childlike hope that he hadn’t died after all, that the president would be alright and we and the world would go on pretty much as before. Kids are right to prize stability in the world around them.
I believe I spent most of the weekend in front of the TV. I was a thoroughly TV kid then. I don’t recall that I felt particularly unhappy that all the stations—even the three independent stations from the City—were providing complete coverage of the event.
If I needed to escape, I could have gone outside, because we lived in a wonderful place. I likely did. The Fall was always beautiful, the light both sharp and poignant, the air crisp and cold, the leaves skittering about.
I know I was watching the moment Ruby leapt in to shoot Oswald. As Monday came my mother, seeing me sitting there watching the funeral, remarked, “I’m sorry there’s nothing else on for you to watch.” I don’t think it a callous statement, just perhaps an expression of concern I was seeing too much of the outside world’s evil too soon and at once, relentlessly. And though I may have sighed, I think I sensed there were much more compelling concerns here than some Abbott and Costello movie.
The weeks following actually seem a little heady as I remember. Everyone at school decided Kennedy was their favorite president, including me—the greatest. But my mother fairly pointed out that he hadn’t really been in office long enough to make that kind judgment.
THE GREAT WHODUNNIT
For some years after, I was fascinated as many were by the assassination and its aftermath. The last book I read cover to cover on Kennedy’s murder was Death of a President by William Manchester.
Looking over the thicket of conspiracy theories that have covered the landscape like kudzu since then, it seems many of them involve so many conspirators, that it’s equally unbelievable that no one blabbed as people naturally do. John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts weren’t a zillionth of a percent as lucky as the various elaborate cabals that supposedly murdered JFK.
“Norman Mailer wrote a whole big long book about Oswald and he doesn’t think the CIA killed Kennedy,” I once pointed out to one seething conspiracist. “Norman Mailer,” I calmly repeated.
“Norman Mailer” she declared sneering at my pathetic ignorance. “Bought and paid for by the CIA!” Mailer's was the last name on her long list of people bought and paid for by the CIA.
I guess I’m on her list too. (Hey! Where’s my payoff!? See how incompetent the CIA is!? I keep my mouth shut for fifty years and they can’t even cut me a check!).
I’ve always resented the insinuation that because I accept that Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman, I am, therefore, complicit in his murder, putting me in the same moral world as Holocaust deniers. My antipathy for crackpots and true believers grows and deepens every year.
For a while, though, I did pay the Mafia-centric scenario some attention—they definitely had strong motives, especially Carlos Marcello, the name most often mentioned. But in the end, as high-ranking Mafioso Jimmy Frattiano pointed out in his autobiography, they would have been “too chickenshit” to pull off such a crime.
And if the U.S. Government did have enough suspicion that Marcello or any Mafioso did kill the President, the killers would have been wiped off the face of the earth by hook or by crook—we call it “extraordinary rendition” now--and no one would have shed a tear for them.
Whatever holes remain—and there are holes as this lumpy article by Ron Rosenbaum clumsily explains, if you’re patient—I am satisfied that Oswald acted alone and Jack Ruby was of the same stripe as he—two fools looking for glory in murder. Sometimes the devil is a loser carrying a mail-order rifle. He doesn’t have to be an evil genius.
So, I’d like to get on with history. There’s still good in the world and lots to do, big things and small.
NO HEROES IN THE VOTING BOOTH
Fifty years later, politicians are no longer heroes to me. They’re men and women of varying degrees of outlook, intelligence, skill—not to mention corruptibility--to whom we give power and responsibility to make certain things happen—often vital and crucial things—and keep other things from happening.
Not that I hate and despise them as a class out of Mencken-like nihilism (though I laugh at them a lot). They need to be both kept in perspective and held to their responsibilities. I sometimes think, like Vladimir Nabokov, that the best monument for a politician would be the size of a postage stamp.
As I grew up and read more widely and deeply, John F. Kennedy started looking smaller to me, especially next to other longer-serving, more effective politicians (such as FDR and even Lyndon Johnson). It appears, as a committed anti-communist Cold Warrior, that Kennedy hadn’t yet made up his mind what do about Vietnam—pulling out may have been a politically unpalatable action and we were already very deeply committed there, no thanks in small part to him.
Kennedy may well have lost the 1964 election for a variety of reasons, including his very frail health. At that point would we have had Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater in the White House? Would Kennedy have been as effective in getting his civil rights legislation through as Lyndon Johnson was (a more-respected figure in civil rights circles, from my understanding)?
Kennedy’s presidency may not have had quite the direct impact people like to think, but his image, his aura did. He was undeniably charismatic, handsome, and intelligent, if not always capable. He had the charisma of a movie star on the level of Cary Grant and it’s hard to think of a U.S. President before that time like him (In that sense, Ronald Reagan is definitely a successor, as is Barack Obama.)
But charisma can be dangerous (see, Hitler, Adolf et al) and, even at its best, a leader can ride only so far on its magic carpet. And John F. Kennedy was quite far from the great liberal hope who would bring lasting peace and justice to the world.
UPSIDE DOWN, AND BLOODY
Many younger visitors to this space may feel baffled and impatient at the attention given this weekend to a fifty-year old event, but believe me, for many of us who were alive then, some of how the world is now grew from that moment in Dallas, for much better, say in the way Kennedy’s image (apart from his reality) galvanized some to strive to make the world a better place. However, it also made the world much worse.
For me, personally, I may have been getting another taste of how human beings could be very dangerous, with agendas that often made no sense to me or the world, no matter what sense it made to them. John Kennedy’s murder was another of those increasing moments when the illusory bubble surrounding me broke, and the chaos of the human world rushed at me. I was learning to be wary as I slowly grew up and into the world.
As one poet warned, there are a lot of bastards out there. Put another way, by an even greater teacher, we are sent to wander among wolves and so need to be wise like serpents. But also, somehow, we’re also called to be as gentle as lambs.
This is a balancing act. The actions of one, even the smallest among us, can turn the world upside down, and bloody. As 9/11 also proved, we always have to keep an eye over our shoulders and up around the next bend, for our individual selves and for each other, as we pray the devils from wherever they hide, high and low, find none of us.
(re-edited 11/23/13 and 12/5/13)
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield