Like many Americans my age and older, I do remember where I was 50 years ago today. We were living in Boston while my father completed his MBA at the Harvard Business School. His graduate school education had been interrupted ten years earlier when he and his brothers, my uncles, formed a successful company in their native Indiana. We lived in a small apartment complex in Cambridge. My mother and brothers and I were returning home to our apartment after being out, and we found our housekeeper (who we called a "cleaning lady," a term I believe is now out of date) in the living room, sitting in an armchair that was normally unofficially reserved for my father. She was crying. I believe she took my mother aside somewhat, to spare us children the news, but I overheard: the President of the United States had been killed.
In the days that followed, my main memory was that the news and the funeral dominated television, and I was cross that most of the cartoons I liked were preempted. I did watch some of the coverage. My memories are, quite typically, visual: I saw John-John's salute, and the President's wife, mysteriously draped in black so that you couldn't see her face, and I was fascinated by the riderless horse with the backwards boots, which I thought was very curious. (I've always loved horses. The custom of the caparisoned horse representing a fallen noble dates back through the mists of time all the way to Genghis Khan.)
In some ways, I don't think America has ever really recovered from that event in Dallas. The country immediately split: Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was the most extensive flowering of Rawlsian liberalism in American history, and Barry Goldwater's trouncing by Johnson in 1964 planted the seeds of right-wing Movement Conservatism. We can't agree on what happened that day 50 years ago, or what its influence was on the decade that followed. About all we know is that the Sixties would have been very different had JFK been President until '68 and then lived on.
Various Kennedy documentaries have melded together in my mind, there are so many of them. The story is one of the great dramas of American history. I think the one that really affected me was the PBS American Experience episodes "The Father" and "The Sons" in 1992, but I have clearly conflated that in my mind with the later documentary narrated by historian and author David McCullough. I don't have enough patience with video to sort them out now. And all the television coverage (I have antenna TV, no cable) is reminding me of those days 50 years ago when, at six, I couldn't watch Mister Ed.
To bring this back on topic, consider that JFK's White House photographer, Jacques Lowe, probably artistically speaking the best pure shooter ever to occupy the post, was informed before he died that his 40,000-negative archive could not be insured, because it was priceless. So he put it in the most secure place he could imagine—a special safe in the vault of JP Morgan bank in the basement of a secure building in New York City: Tower 5 of the World Trade Center. Destruction heaped upon destruction.
Say what you will of saviors and eternal life: on this Earth, Death is King.
UPDATE: Our friend Errol Morris has produced a short film about the best evidence of what happened fifty years ago today—the photographic evidence.
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Featured Comments from:
Jeff1000: "I was down the street from you, Mike, in the factory town known as Worcester. My third grade class at Rice Square Elementary school was sent home early, the entire school of course. I remember walking home in an army-like formation, as the school mandated, on my way to Plantation Street. When I arrived home my beautiful young mom was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. She appeared surprised to see me home so early and she just looked at me searchingly. I said, "Ma! Ma! The President’s been shot and he’s dead." Over the next few days I watched the gray and somber images being played over our black-and-white TV set."
Chuck Albertson: "Like most others who can remember it and are still around, I was in grade school (4th grade) in Las Vegas, out on the playground at recess. I noticed that one of the teachers keeping an eye on us had a transistor radio to her ear, and she said something to the teacher standing next to her, whose jaw hit the floor. A kid standing next to them heard what was said and relayed it to the next kid, and I watched the news sweep across the playground like a breeze blowing through tall grass."
Animesh Ray: "I was 9, in fourth grade, in India, in a small town near Calcutta. I remember the low winter sun that would slant down into the walkway between two rooms in our three-room flat, the light reflecting off the red cement floor casting a glow into my parents' bedroom that housed the radio. My mother sat there that afternoon in front of the radio and told me President Kennedy was dead--someone had killed him. Not even a year ago we had read in the newspaper of Mrs. Kennedy's visit, when she had dressed up in a sari; that was the reason I had heard of President Kennedy, that his wife, though an American, had worn a sari like an Indian woman. Yes, we cried too. It was because we had thought of him as a friend of India.
"Many, many years later I understood a bit more as to why we Indians were so moved by the news. It was the high point of relationship between India and the USA, with John Kenneth Galbraith as the US Ambassador in India having cultivated a profound regard for the US through his liberal stance, and the USA's help to India in the Sino-Indian war that occurred just a few years before. It was as if we lost a friend."