Thoughts on The Assassination of JFK
The Kennedy assassination, through the eyes of a five year old.
When I was a boy, the most important things in my life were my toys... and television. It was the early 1960's, when television was in black and white and the only channels were, two, five, seven, and nine. The black and white programs one watches now, as reruns, were then, state of the art first run testimonies as to what American life was supposed to be like.
In 1963, many airliners still had propellers and doctors still made house calls. Ronald Reagan and Fred Flintstone, among others, did cigarette commercials. The 44 story Prudential building was the tallest building in Chicago, and NIKE missile bases stood on the lake front at the Montrose, and 63rdStreet beach's. Most people remember this as the year Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech; others remember it as the year Valium was invented. One of my earliest personal memories is of a Friday afternoon, the day they cut into an episode of Bozo's Circus. I was five years old, and the television was my window to the world.
I grew up in a house on Chase Avenue in Chicago's quiet West Rogers Park neighborhood. I drove past there recently, and that evoked more than a few childhood memories. The neighborhood was pretty much the same, the houses at least; mostly single family Georgian and Ranch style homes. Ginkgo trees now line the street, where when I was a child; there were elms.
I remember when they cut down all the elm trees, "Dutch Elm Disease," that's what they said it was. Every September the trees would shed their leaves and all the children on the street would help to rake them up, only so we could put them in a pile to jump upon before they were dragged to the curb and burned. The little bonfires burned into the night, well past our bedtimes, but we all loved the glow of the fire, and the sweet perfume of burning leaves that filled the air. We loved the smell of the little fires, next to the lilac bushes which bloomed in the spring, and Mrs. Kaplan's house when she was baking cookie's; that was the best smell that there was.
It was late November, and as I sat in the car, for some reason I was brought back to my childhood, back to the year 1963. That was the year when the elm trees still stood tall, and Mr. Carson hid my bicycle (because I had left it out side and he wanted me to think it was stolen). In that year: My dog Buttons bit Mikey Kilroy, Michael Gordon cut himself running out in the street to the knife sharpeners cart with his mothers knives, and one day; they canceled Bozo's Circus ...right in the middle of the show.
I was having lunch at that time, Campbell's tomato soup, and the grilled cheese my mom made on our grilled cheese maker. I remember that the man on the news came on instead of Bozo, my mom started to cry, and the phone rang. I finished my sandwich and played around with my spoon in the soup because I had run out of crackers. Just then, the doorbell rang. I was hoping it was Bennie the milkman because we were out of chocolate milk…and Bennie was the only person to ring the bell when Bozo was on.
Bennie worked for the Twin Oaks Dairy— that was the one with the funny squirrels and acorns on the side of their truck. He once told me that the chocolate cow had run away, so he had no more chocolate milk. He still gave me some though, because the little boy down the street had grown up and didn't want it anymore, so he had extra.
It wasn't Bennie at the door; it was Mrs. Stern from down the street. Mrs. Stern had a son named Jimmy who was older than me, and I would play with him sometimes, he was trying to teach me this new game, like checkers, but with funny looking pieces; horses and castles and stuff. When my mom got off the phone she called me into the kitchen. I was in the living room playing with my crash mobile, or silly putty, or something because Bozo wasn't on anymore. I had a lot of real good toys back then, and when my older brother was in school I got to play with his toys too. But now my mom wanted to talk to me... and Mrs. Stern was there!
I didn't like Mrs. Stern. She told on me and Judy (the girl from next door) when she caught us playing with matches in the shed one day. She was just a mean old lady. I thought I was going to get another lecture about what nice little boys and girls should and should not do. She was always nosy and all the kids used to make fun of her... when she wasn't there. But when she was there; we were all scared of her. She looked like a mean old devil woman, 'cause her glasses were all pointy at the top and looked like horns. And she was a snitcher too! If she ever saw you doing anything like, climbing a tree, or chasing a ball into the street, or even just throwing stuff down the sewer, she would go right on up to your mother and tell. She was real mean. I jumped all over her flowers one summer when she wasn't home; she didn't even know it was me…Shhh.
Anyway, my mom asked me to sit down, and then asked me if I wanted some cookies. I was five years old, but I knew something wasn't right. Cookies? Right after soup and grilled cheese? And with the Snitcher in the house. I thought my brother Harley did something really, really bad, and they wanted me to snitch on him and be a snitcher too.
Harley was my older brother, his name was really Harlan, but Harley was easier to say, like my name is Joe, but Joey is easier to say. My baby sister's name was Bonna, we just called her Boner, because it was a funny word, and we laughed when we said it, Jimmy made it up. Anyway, Harley was at school, he went to the same school that I went to, Decatur. He was in the second grade, but I was in kindergarten, so I didn't have to go back to school in the afternoon. I looked at the television, and the man from the news was still on. This happened a lot in the summer, like when they play baseball games and stuff. They cancel Bozo for that too... and Garfield Goose!
The baby started to cry, so my mom went to get her. Mrs. Stern was crying, but she didn't look so mean when she was crying. She took off her glasses, and she looked just like any other old lady, she had blue eyes. I don't think anybody ever saw her eyes before; all we saw were those pointy old horn glasses. I was putting the cookies on my fingers, 'cause they had holes in them, and singing the song the lady from the commercial sang. ("♫ Mommy? What is it dear? I want some Salerno Butter Cookies...♪"). My mom came back with the baby and sat down. I told her, "I didn't see Harley do nothing." She said, "No Joey, it's okay, Harley didn't do anything."
Everybody was crying. The baby was crying, my mom was crying, Mrs. Stern was crying...now the people on the television were crying! I never let anyone see me cry, well, except for my mom and dad. I would hold it in, and then go to my room or in the basement if Harley was in the room. My mom asked, "Joey, you know who President Kennedy is, don't you?" Well, of course I knew who "President Kenny" was, I was in kindergarten! Everybody knew who "President Kenny" was. I said, "Yes, he's the man that said we should all do something for our Country."
My dad had a record album with President Kenny talking on it, but it didn't have any music, he would play it a lot after he let me hear my Chipmunks record. I liked the Chipmunks, but I could only listen to them when my dad was at home, because he wouldn't let anybody else play records on the Hi-Fi. President Kenny said that people should not ask stuff, and then ask stuff about the country, but there wasn't no music, so I would play with my toys, or go and watch: My Favorite Martian or The Flintstones, or Beanie and Cecil..
My mom then told me that a very bad man had shot President Kenny with a gun, and President Kenny might go to heaven... like Grandma did.
I loved my Grandma, and when Grandma went to heaven I cried. Boy did I cry!Everybody saw me too: Judy, Jimmy, Harley, everybody. Nobody laughed though! Sometimes, even when you're big, it's okay to cry. Sometimes something happens, and it's not like a lickin', or falling down, or burning yourself on the stove. Sometimes its things you can't feel, or even see on the outside, but they hurt you inside, not like a stomach ache or nothin'; worse! Sometimes you cry because it's the only thing you can do, because you have to! So, on that Friday, November 22 1963, I forgot all about The Three Stooges Show, Garfield Goose, the Dick Tracy Cartoons, and even Bozo, and I cried... right in front of Mrs. Stern. Now everybody was crying, for sure.
On the Monday that followed that weekend, we didn't have to go to school. My dad didn't have to go to work either. He worked with the politician people (before they had to go to jail) and they didn't work that day. I don't think anybody had to work, because everybody's cars were in front of their houses. I knew my shows wouldn't be on, well maybe Romper Room, but that's for babies. Everything on television was about President Kennedy. All weekend everything was about President Kennedy. Some guy named Jack Ruby shot the guy that shot President Kennedy, right when they were taking him to the jail. Harley said, "Good." And so did I.
Later that day they had the funeral on the television. There were a lot of horses and army men, and flags. President Kennedy's son was there. His name was Jon-Jon. His mother made him wear a real ugly jacket. It had big buttons on the front, and it was too long. If I had to wear a jacket like that, I would have said I lost it, or it got stole, or it was dirty. But his daddy just went to heaven, so he didn't want to get his mommy mad. He held his hand up to his head, like the army men did, and when the horses went by with his daddy in the box, he didn't cry a lot. Sometimes, if you cry too much, you can't cry anymore. Even if you want to cry, you can't. I cried again. But I was thinking about how he must miss his daddy. It seemed like everybody missed his daddy. Everybody was crying.
After the funeral, television went back to the normal shows at the normal times; everything went back to normal. Thanksgiving was later that week, but it wasn't any fun, we had to get all dressed up and go to Uncle Freddy's house. All the grownups would talk about President Kennedy, and all of us kids had to be good and couldn't make a lot of noise. The grown ups would say we should be like Jon-Jon, because he was such a good little boy.
It is strange what one can recall in a short period. What is even stranger is the way one can recall it. I can only remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the recollections of the five-year-old child I was on that November afternoon. I can only relate it from that child's perspective, from that child's eyes, as if the events were burnt in my memory, and then frozen in time.
As I am brought back to the present, it dawns on me that this time might very well have been the turning point for a generation. It was the point where a black and white world turned to color, and airliners lost their propellers. It was the point where people removed their blinders and saw things as they truly were. It was at this point, a whole nation witnessed the assassination, and funeral of its president in the comfort of their living rooms. It was the point where a five-year-old boy from West Rogers Park, after being introduced to the evils of this world— which are— learned how to pronounce the presidents name. And more significantly, it was the point where that child, as well as a great portion of the American people lost their collective innocence.