"We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a sane and safe future." John F. Kennedy
In November of 1963 I was 19 years old. The last time a President of the United States had died while still in office (Franklin D. Roosevelt), I had been approaching my first birthday. What was happening here during these waning days of November was something new to people my age and younger, and many felt this was so much worse. President Roosevelt was a sickly man at age 63 when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, in April of 1945. President Kennedy was a young man in his forties, in his prime, when struck down by an assassin’s bullet. Roosevelt died at the height of World War II. Kennedy was killed when tensions between the U.S. and Russia were at their height and nuclear war was feared around the world. I guess any younger generation experiencing traumatic times on a world-wide basis thinks his or her experiences are the worst ever; they really have nothing with which to compare.
We watched a lot of television over the next three or four days. After the death of the President that Friday in Dallas, Texas, and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson as the new president, Air Force One, bearing the dead President, the new President and their families left Dallas for a flight to Washington, D.C. and arrived late that evening. We saw the departure from Dallas’ Love Field and the arrival at Andrews AFB in Washington. The casket was then transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital where an autopsy was performed. We learned from television that the body would be returned to the White House after the autopsy and that it would lie in repose in the East Room of the White House on Saturday (the same room where Abraham Lincoln’s body had lain nearly a hundred years earlier).
That Saturday, we watched off and on pretty much the whole day and into the night. I don’t know how many regular TV shows were either cancelled or interrupted that day and evening but it seems everyone was tuned in to see what was happening in Washington. This was the stuff of books to be written, enough to fill a library. We saw that mahogany casket that state visitors passed by in the East Room that Saturday. An interesting side note that I never knew ‘til many years later concerned the original casket. Kennedy’s body had been placed in a bronze casket at Parkland Hospital in Dallas for the flight to Washington. That bronze casket was replaced by the mahogany one after the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The bronze casket was placed aboard an Air Force plane and flown out over the Atlantic Ocean and dropped into the sea. The concern was that if someone ever got possession of the casket it would result in a morbid situation that the family wanted to prevent at all costs.
In Part 2 of this story we talked of the murder of the suspected assassin in the halls of the Dallas jail as millions around the country watched on live TV. This was the day, back in Washington, when Kennedy’s body was transferred from the White House to the Rotunda of the United States Capitol Building to lie in state until the funeral on Monday. Little did we know as we watched all of these proceedings unfold how much time historians had spent pouring over official records of Lincoln’s funeral. And so much of what we saw these few days mirrored what had been done for President Lincoln nearly a hundred years earlier. I went to church that Sunday and to this day can’t recall much of anything that happened at church. As I said earlier, I’m sure there was much talk of the death of the President, including in the pastor’s sermon. But I don’t remember it. I remember watching TV that afternoon and seeing the people filing past the casket in the capital (they said later that maybe 200,000 people came to pay their respects).
On Monday, November the 25th, I went back to work at Pepperell in Lindale. Everybody you met anywhere that day wanted to tell you about what they had seen on TV since we all left last Friday. And everyone was courteous and respectful as you were told the same things you had seen yourself. The theories had already started as to why this had happened. Surprisingly, many of these theories had pointed to Lyndon Johnson because of his long history in the Halls of Congress and his having been seen as a favorite for becoming President years earlier and then being upstaged by this young pipsqueak from back east – a hard pill for the big Texan to swallow. But that theory was just the beginning of the small industry that would be formed over Kennedy’s death and which would not settle down for thirty or more years!
We had no TVs at work (even very few radios), so we had to watch the actual state funeral films on the evening news shows that night. Scenes of the riderless horse with the boots backwards in the stirrups and of little John-John saluting as the cortege passed by and the lighting of the eternal gas flame at the grave site in Arlington National Cemetery were seared into the collective memories of most of us to last for a generation of two.
The world had changed in the past week. Much would go on as before. Some things would never be the same. Much of the “age of innocence” of the 50’s and early sixties was now gone. The seeds of Vietnam were sprouting halfway around the world. The laid back songs we’d loved were turning to a strident protest. People were beginning to choose up sides. We were to be children no more.