November 22, 1963. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing that day when the news broke that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas? I still remember that day like it happened just a few hours ago. I remember even the smallest details of that cool, overcast November afternoon in Gainesville when life as I knew it changed forever. I was 12 years old at the time, a seventh grader at Westwood Junior High.
I was in physical education class that afternoon when Coach Mike “Fuzzy” Fratella blew his whistle and waved everybody to the basketball courts on the west side of the school. We had just begun playing football so it was much too early for class to end. We ran to Coach Fratella, who told us to go shower, dress and proceed to our home rooms with all due haste, warning us, “Be quiet, I don’t want to hear you laughing or joking or wasting any time. Just get showered and get dressed and do it quickly.”
We still had no idea what was going on but within a moment or two after we got to our lockers David Bricker burst into the room with tears rolling down his cheeks.
“They shot him!” he said. “They shot the president! President Kennedy is dead!”
At first we looked at each other as if this must be some joke. The president? Who would shoot the president of the United States of America? Then we looked once again at David Bricker. He was sobbing uncontrollably.
We knew it was true and I think every heart in the room sank at once to unfathomable depths.
In our home rooms, we sat quietly as Mr. Simmons, our principle, told us what we already knew, that President Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas. Mr. Simmons said a prayer. I tried to pray, too, but I couldn’t think of any words except “God, please help us.” I wanted to say so much more but my mind just couldn’t produce the words and my lips were frozen and my throat sandpaper dry. We were told that school was out and that we probably wouldn’t have school on Monday.
Riding the bus to Gainesville High School, which was our stop, nobody said a word. It is only 21 blocks from Westwood to GHS but the ride seemed to take forever. It was a three-minute walk to our home on Northwest 21st Avenue and I turned on the television to listen to Walter Cronkite describe what had happened. Later in the day I learned about Lee Harvey Oswald.
I just couldn’t imagine why anyone, especially a former Marine, would want to kill the president. Fifty years later, even though I’m no longer the naïve 12-year-old and even though I’ve lived long enough to see horrible things, I still ask that question and I still wonder why Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to kill the president.
* * *
I am still shocked at how quickly the decisions were made that day. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president with Mrs. Kennedy standing beside him on Air Force One as he took the oath of office. Three days later, they buried President Kennedy at Arlington. By today’s standards, that is unfathomable.
Here in Gainesville, P.K. Yonge’s football game went on as scheduled at Citizen’s Field. I went to the game with my dad and if I recall correctly, the Blue Wave beat Green Cove Springs.
Although many college football games were cancelled nationwide, the SEC played on although it wasn’t a heavy schedule. On Saturday, the Florida Gators beat Miami, 27-21, at the Orange Bowl behind quarterback Tommy Shannon. I remember listening to Otis Boggs call the game on the radio. Even though the Gators won, he didn’t sound very excited. Nothing seemed exciting that weekend.
The NFL played its full schedule that weekend but none of the games were televised because of ongoing news coverage.
On Sunday morning, I watched on television as Jack Ruby walked up to Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred to the county jail and murdered the man accused of killing the president. In those days, the television airwaves were crowded with westerns and World War II dramas so there was always “killing” on television. But this wasn’t some actor firing blanks. This was a real live murder on television. As shocked as I was that the president was dead, I was perhaps equally or more shocked to watch Oswald go down.
Fifty years later, I still don’t buy the Warren Commission report that Oswald acted alone. I still wonder what Lee Harvey Oswald would have told us if he had gone to trial.
* * *
John Kennedy had charisma. Whatever it is, he had it. He was good looking, charming and had a gorgeous wife. He played football with his brothers. He was a war hero. He was a spellbinding orator who challenged us individually and as a nation to find the best within ourselves. I was nine when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
When I was 11, President Kennedy stared down Khrushchev and the Soviet Union in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember that because we lived in Sanford at the time and our neighborhood was a mostly Navy neighborhood. Probably half our neighbors flew A3Ds and A4Js out of Sanford Naval Air Station. For a month, a plane took off and another one landed every 12 seconds as Navy fighter jets flew escort for bombers and provided cover for the destroyers and carriers that were circling Cuba.
Every day at Lake Mary School we practiced for the inevitable nuclear attack. The bell would go off and we would huddle under our desks as if that would really do anything to save us.
When Khrushchev blinked, President Kennedy was a hero. He had saved us from war.
So when he died, I fearfully wondered who would protect us? Who would stand up to the communists?
* * *
As I have learned in the years since, President Kennedy was a flawed man, but even with all his flaws, I like to think that the world would have been a much better place had he lived. Kennedy gave me hope. Lyndon Johnson scared me.
Would John Kennedy have escalated the Viet Nam War? Johnson did, but I wonder if Kennedy would have. Kennedy was a diehard capitalist who jumpstarted the American economy with across the board tax cuts rather than raising taxes. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” social programs evolved into Johnson’s “Great Society.” I still wonder if Kennedy would have gone as far as Johnson with the social programs.
I also wonder what the world would have been like had President Kennedy served his two terms in office and then become America’s respected statesman. I like to think that much of the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s would have been avoided, but that’s something we will never know for sure. I wonder who would have succeeded JFK as president. Would it have been Nixon? Somehow I think not and that means there would have been no Watergate nor a need to elect Jimmy Carter.
My list of questions about life if Kennedy had lived has no end and there are no answers. I still ask why did President Kennedy die that day? Only God knows for sure and he hasn’t chosen to clue me in.
Today is 50 years since President Kennedy was killed and on this day I will do what I do every November 22. At some moment when it’s quiet and I’m all alone, I’ll read President Kennedy’s inaugural speech once again. It still inspires me, fills me with hope and makes me wonder what could have been.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
It seems fitting to me that today’s music is “Abraham, Martin and John,” which Dion first recorded in 1968. I look back on the 1960s and it still hurts that three of the most enlightened leaders we had – John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – were all shot down in the prime of their lives. I will always wonder what kind of world we would be living in had those three lived on.