The solemnity of November 22, 1963, fifty years later, can be matched only by December 7, 1941, April 12, 1945, August 6, 1945 and September 11, 2001. Each of these dates mean something very serious, very reverent to those who were alive at the time the significant events of history exploded off the calendar.
For the rest of us, we recognize the importance in history of the dates mentioned, but if we weren’t alive at the time, we have no memory of why it is so, and how each affected us and our country.
For me, certainly, I was a 12 year old kid when I learned of JFKs shooting and subsequent death. As one who served as an altar boy, I was aware of death from a general sense. And I had known kids my age who died well before they should have.
But the death of JFK was different. He was our leader, after all, and someone had the audacity to take him from us. Why? As we now know, there are many conspiracy theories which beg to answer that simple question and in 50 years, we are no closer to the answer than we were at 1pm CST that horrible afternoon.
For baby-boomers, this was the first significant event that we could see change our country. The other dates, Pearl Harbor, FDRs death and Hiroshima, well, our parents told us about those events from their perspective, or we learned about them in school. But the death of JFK, like the terrorist attacks in NY and DC were current events to us and we were able to take in our own memories with those events.
That weekend for all of us was the “WEEKEND FROM HELL” and we saw our country change right before our eyes as TV grew up and matured overnight. First came the landing of Air Force One on Friday night at Andrews. We saw the casket come off the plane and placed into the waiting hearse for the drive to Bethesda.
Next, came the Saturday dirge as it rained in NY and DC all day. This made the events played out on TV even more maudlin than they were, because our mood as a nation, as a people, was already well into a depressive state without having a dreary day on top.
When we thought it couldn’t get any worse, on Sunday morning we watched horrified as the alleged assassin was assassinated before our very eyes. I recall turning to my dad as we both stared shocked at the TV, unbelievingly. As that day dragged on, we saw the caisson carry his body to the rotunda of the Capitol building, through the streets of Washington, lined 10 deep with mourners, as they stood for hours in the rain waiting to catch a glimpse of the flagged-draped casket.
Mrs Kennedy went to the casket with her six year old daughter to kneel and say a prayer at the funeral bier. The casket was surrounded by a military honor guard, from each service branch, which stood at attention through the wee hours of Monday morning, with a TV camera focused always on that scene.
The weather on the 25th was much better, with a crisp, sunny autumn sky as the backdrop. We saw “John-John” salute his father at his mother’s urging and his sister hold a flag in her hand, while holding her mother’s. Then the procession began with the family, Jackie, Bobby and Teddy, leading the hundreds of national and international dignitaries to the church and later, to Arlington, where JFK was laid to rest.
The military, the riderless horse with boots placed in reverse in the stirrups, and the incessant drumbeat were all permanent touches of our senses that day. We watched as the procession continued on foot all through the District, crossing the Potomac River Bridge, until the mourners arrived in Arlington. We watched Jackie kneel and light the Eternal Flame, which burns brightly to this day.
Finally, mercifully, that tragic weekend came to an end, as we watched President Johnson greet the likes of De Gaulle, MacMillan and Adenauer to accept their condolences and their regrets on behalf of all of us.
TV played an important part in this weekend, which will live vividly in the minds of all who were alive at that time. TV has certainly played an important part this month to remind all of us of those events. I would venture to guess that TV will continue to remind us of those terrible events in the months and years to come.
But nothing will make the same impression on us as our own memories of that terrible weekend of our history. To me, that was the day, the weekend, that changed our country forever. We will never be the same again.
“And sure there’s simply not, a more congenial spot, than happy everaftering, than here in Camelot.”