If you are of a certain age I’ll bet you know exactly where you were 53 years ago this morning.
I was in Miss Lillie Belle’s classroom when the big PA speaker on the wall crackled to life and my father, the superintendent, told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Somebody in town who’d heard it on the radio had called the school to tell him and, though I had never heard anything come over that speaker before, I guess my father thought it was time to use it. He could have just yelled it down the hall, or paid a visit to each of the dozen or so classrooms. The Oakwood school was laid out like an assembly line: first grade through eighth on one side of his office, high school classes on the other.
A few minutes later he came back on and told us the president had died. The same man had called in and told him that Walter Cronkite had confirmed it on Channel 4 out of Dallas. In 1963, in Oakwood, if Walter Cronkite said it, it was a fact.
That afternoon I had a dentist appointment over in Palestine which my mother drove me to in our Chevrolet Impala, the window beside her rolled down a bit so the smoke from her Pall Malls could find its way out into the November afternoon.
The dashboard radio spilled out updates and reactions from around the world. We learned that the airplane that had brought the president to Dallas was taking his body back to Washington, along with President Johnson, who’d been given the oath of office in the plane before it took off. Mrs. Kennedy, the reporter told us, was still in the blood-smeared dress she’d been in when she’d cradled her husband’s head in her lap in the motorcade.
My mother was unusually quiet during the drive. Then, when we were just a few miles from Palestine, she pulled the car over on the shoulder of Highway 79, put it in park, and sat staring through the windshield. In a moment she started to cry. Finally, as I sat wide-eyed not knowing what to do or say, she wiped her eyes with a tissue, adjusted the rearview mirror so she could make sure her lipstick was right, lit up a Pall Mall and we were on our way.
Scores of books have been written about that day and the events that led up to it and followed it. The most detailed nonfiction account was William Manchester’s The Death of a President, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and was published in 1967. It was followed by many, far too many, conspiracy theorists who have chimed in for decades with volume after volume.
Novelists, of course, haven’t been able to resist the sirens’ call of a story as compelling as the Kennedy assassination. My favorite, so far, has been Stephen King’s time travel tome titled 11/22/63. Don Dilullo’s Libra, which focuses on Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, got good reviews when it came out in the late eighties. I haven’t read it, but a copy I picked up at a used book store is waiting for me in my stack of someday reads.
November 22nd, 1963, is a date engrained in our both our memory and our national psyche, like December 7th, 1941 and September 11th, 2001. Wordsmiths have tried to capture the sadness, disbelief, disgust and fear of that day in Dallas for over half a century. Some have come close.
Personally, my strongest image, a haunting one, is of my mother leaning against the huge steering wheel of a Chevrolet Impala on the side of a highway, crying for a man she might not have even voted for. Crying for his young widow who she would never meet. Crying, that sad afternoon, for all of us.