President Kennedy Murdered, Fifty-six Years Ago
More Than Fifty Years , But the Memory is Still Fresh.
"Shot AT? Was he hit?"
I wondered when I heard the rumor.
Everything seemed normal on the second floor of the university library. Outside the soundproof windows of the listening booth, people went about their business as usual.
Despite the open history book in front of me and the familiar strains of "Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor" coming through the speakers, the overheard news kept popping back into my head.
"Probably just a rumor," I thought, "a mistake."
Friday was my free day with no classes. Normally, I would not have been on campus at all, but I had hopped on the bus and come to spend some study time at the library, where I could do some research. (This was long before the days of Google.)
It was drizzly and overcast that late November morning.
Later, it seemed especially gray and cold, a feeling that still returns with the memory of these events.
As I had walked into the wide lobby area, a tall girl with an armload of books was telling a librarian that somebody had shot at President Kennedy in Texas.
The comment had grabbed my attention, but I continued on my usual way to the second floor where I often studied in the music listening carrels. It was a comfortable and familiar space, but troubling thoughts about what I had heard kept interrupting my concentration.
JFK Inaguration video
The Nagging Questions
I was trying to prepare for an impending test, but couldn't focus on study. Questions kept popping into my head.
"Could it be true?
"What if he was wounded?
"If he had been badly hurt, would he be able to continue as president?"
I did not allow the impossible idea that he could have been killed into my mind.
I returned the LP record to the clerk, checked out a couple of books and went back downstairs, glancing around the main lobby to see if the person I had overheard was still there. She wasn't.
Where could I find out something?
I started back to the bus stop, when I remembered that the college newspaper office had recently installed an Associated Press wire service machine that constantly typed out the latest news.
This wondrous device, usually only available in city newspaper offices was of great fascination to us journalism students, as we got "instant" access to breaking national stories.
This was, of course, before the days of 24 hour news stations and internet. If there was anything true in this unlikely rumor, it certainly would appear on the AP machine. Morning classes were in mid-session so very few people were walking about the campus.
As I headed for the journalism department, I studied faces of passing students to see if anything seemed to be amiss. Everything was normal.
Hurrying up the stairs to newspaper office, I was amazed to find the room jammed with people. Not just the usual staff, but lots of people I had never seen before.
In fact, there was hardly room for another person inside. More students and faculty members began to gather outside the open doors.
Someone up close to the AP machine was reading aloud as stories came clattering across, punctuated by bells that signaled the transmission of a major story.
The Shocking News Reports
"Dateline, Dallas. Shots rang out in Deley Plaza as President Kennedy's Motorcade traveled past the welcoming throngs of Texans gathered along the route...." STOP."
Dateline, Dallas. President Kennedy was hit by a sniper's bullet as his open limousine... " STOP."
Dateline, Dallas. President John F. Kennedy, apparently seriously wounded, ...."
The lead of the story kept changing for the worse through the next several minutes as updates and details were added.
We heard that the president's car had sped to the hospital, that police had cornered a suspect, that the Texas governor was wounded and that others had been hit.
We stood there looking at each other in sickened shock waiting to hear that he was all right. Things like this didn't happen. It could not be happening.
After some time the newspaper adviser, Professor Dixon Gayer, came out of his small office holding up a transistor radio, which promised an official statement. The announcement was brief and stunning from Parkland Hospital.
JFK was dead.
It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room. Everyone stood there silent and motionless for about ten seconds. Then, suddenly -- something I still don't understand -- everyone rushed out of the room as if they were all late for appointments.
Where was everyone was going in such a hurry? Did they all think of something they needed to do right away? What could anyone do, after all? I was one of the last two people in the room, as about 50 or 60 others suddenly disappeared.
A Sudden Exit
Professor Gayer was still standing in the doorway of his office looking at the radio in his hand with a pained expression on his face.
A Christian hymn was playing on the local news station. Everything seemed abnormal.
The AP machine had stopped its clattering typewriter noises and bells. I sank down on a newsroom chair resting my head in my hands.
It was disbelief and shock, not yet evolved into grief, as I thought back to the time a little more than three years before when I had gone with a few friends to the jam-packed L.A. Coliseum to see JFK accept his party's nomination for president.
The young senator and his wife had been driven into the arena in an open car as thousands cheered their arrival for the acceptance speech that would be quoted for years to come. He had challenged us to think of what we could do for our country.
As a college freshman in that presidential election year, I had carpooled to the campus with three other girls.
There was an ongoing political debate during our daily commute, with different fidelities. It had been a time of innocence and optimism, idealism and hope.
For, despite the cold war exchanges of rhetoric and the communist threat, we had an expectation that a new generation of young, idealistic leaders would build on postwar prosperity to make the world even better.
After a while, I got up and walked over the the wire service machine. The awful news was really there; it had not been just a fearful dream.
After a moment or two, the machine started to transmit again. Someone was slowly and deliberately typing out The Lord's Prayer.
I caught the bus for home, and as I looked around at the other riders I thought they looked very tired and sad. Did they know? Or did they always look that way? An old man sitting across from me caught my eye. "Did you hear...?" he said.
"Yes," I answered quietly, before he finished his question. Neither of us said any more.
The bus was passing my stop, but I didn't feel like being alone at home, so I rode all the way downtown and got off on Pine St. near Buffum's Department store in Downtown Long Beach. There were the usual shoppers and traffic on the street.
Men with ladders were climbing up to the street lights, hauling up glittery tinsel Christmas decorations, and swagging them across the busy street on a tightly drawn wire.
It seemed disrespectful and incongruous that festive holiday decorations should be going up at such a time, though the workers probably hadn't even heard the news yet.
At the base of one lamppost was a woman wearing a heavy brown coat and a silk scarf with red flowers on it. She was seated on a folding chair at a card table, with a neat stack of forms in front of her. The taped-on sign said "Register to Vote".
Since I had turned 21 a few months before, the legal voting age at the time, I sat down on the empty folding chair and asked for a form.
What Could We Do?
Perhaps registering to vote was the only positive thing I could do, though I had no idea of whom I would vote for.
An assassin's bullet had taken away my choice, because the impossible had somehow happened. The innocence, optimism and idealism of the previous decade had been suddenly shattered in a way which might compare to the the later attacks on the World Trade Center.
Back then, it was only one man instead of thousands of people, but he represented all of us. We felt that we knew him personally, and this event had a similar effect on the country. There was no way of striking back, except by resolving to go on.
A piece of silver tinsel fluttered down and landed on the registration form as I signed my name.