JFK: Where We Were That Day

Photograph by Newseum/PRNewsFoto via AP Images

President John F. Kennedy and his motorcade in Dallas.

Updated at 10:15 am and 5:30 pm EST

I turned 10 on this day in history, which unfolded before me on the black-and-white screen of the 19-inch RCA Victor table-top TV, complete with rabbit ears, that I got for my birthday.

It’s said that John Fitzgerald Kennedy brought technicolor to a nation that had been living in black and white. The first president born in the 20th Century, his glamorous younger wife and their cherubic children captured a baby-booming nation’s imagination. The creation of the Peace Corps, following that call to a selfless national devotion in his inaugural address, and his declaration of the mission to land an American on the moon didn’t hurt.

The assassination, though, remains in my mind’s eye as my first political memory, and I still see it in the black and white images of the desktop TV playing that day I stayed home sick from school, assembling a model car and watching my RCA. We could only get three channels, yet all we really needed was Walter Cronkite attempting to explain it all to us. “The Making of the President 1960” also is the first political book I remember reading years later. And again years later, I literally sat at the feet of author Teddy White, as several journalism students spread out across his living room floor in New York to learn about his craft.

In the early Sixties, we largely saw only what politicians wanted us to see of them. And the persistent myth built around the president who served so briefly was largely framed by the pictures he stage-managed and produced. He was the first to employ a White House photographer, and he put the official artist to work when his wife was away — snapping pictures of the children that would affix the family in the public’s pantheon, as I recently was reminded during a tour of the exhibit marking the Kennedy shooting anniversary at the Newseum in Washington. Kennedy summoned Alan Stanley Tretrick to take the one of his son peering from beneath The Resolute Desk in the Oval Office for Look magazine. The image was captured a month before the president’s death.

Allow me to replay my own words: “It was both the hired photographers and the working press in an era when newspapers and large-format magazines were flourishing and television was coming into its own who made the tragically foreshortened memories of this brief presidency something as permanently etched in the American mind as the newsreel footage and the late Stan Stearns’ photo of the president’s young son saluting his father’s funeral caisson.”

My eyes still tear when I contemplate that photo of the saluting John John, who also is gone now. I believe it has everything to do with where I was on that long, sad day spent at home glued to my birthday present.

- Mark Silva

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Eric Holder remembers this day partly for the first time he saw his father cry. He was in seventh grade the day Kennedy was shot. He heard rumors in the hallway as he was changing classes. He faced an exam in his next class, science. The teacher went in and out of the room as the class took that test. When they finished, their teacher said the president was dead.

The attorney general went out to Arlington before sunrise this morning. He stood for a few minutes of silence at the Kennedy grave-site, and then walked the short path to the grave of Robert F. Kennedy, who served as his brother’s attorney general and was assassinated as he ran for president almost five years after the presidential assassination in Dallas.

Holder left Justice Department coins at the graves of both brothers today. With the markings of the agency, the coins read: “Department of Justice of the United States” on one side, “Attorney General of the United States” on the other.

President Barack Obama visited Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, as he bestowed the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian recognition, on several people including former President Bill Clinton. President Kennedy had initiated the honor as a presidential medal, and never got to award one.

Obama marked this day in a meeting with several volunteers and administrators of the Peace Corps, which has recruited more than 215,000 Americans serving in 139 countries. The White House says “he expressed his appreciation for the commitment exemplified by Peace Corps’ supporters and volunteers and for continuing to respond to President Kennedy’s call to service. ”

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And guess who else missed school watching this day play out:

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Today, CBS News streamed online what it was airing live on TV, from Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago.

Kennedy was declared dead at about 1 pm Central time.

And read Bloomberg’s Don Frederick, writing about this day of recollection:

A memory that remains as vivid as the day the events unfolded:

The clock had passed 1:30 p.m. at the junior high in a suburb bordering Washington, D.C., which meant one class was about to end and just one more stood between the 12-year-old boy and the weekend.

He already was in an especially good mood, having skipped his morning classes for a good reason — the metal jackets that had bracketed his teeth for a year had finally finished their straightening process and been removed. No longer would the braces scrape the inside of his cheeks; no longer would those miniature rubber bands pop out of his mouth at the most inopportune moments.

The class wrapping up was “industrial arts,” this still being a time when educators presumed every male student needed to take “shop” while every female took “home economics.” The boy, as usual, was goofing off — standing next to some sort of woodworking machinery and joking with some buddies when suddenly the intercom came on and a radio report crackled across the room.

There was no set-up, no prelude remarks from anyone in the front office. Just the news, the then-sketchy news that shots had been fired at the car carrying President Kennedy during a motorcade in Dallas. He apparently had been hit, and rushed to a hospital.

Just as abruptly as the intercom had come on, it went off.

The boys and his buddies looked at one another, shock and confusion mingling. It couldn’t be true, a mistake must have been made — this was America in her post-World War II prime, and chaotic events like assassination attempts were for third-world countries. And besides, Kennedy — with his good looks and vigorous style and confident manner — was invincible, wasn’t he?

The bell rang and it was time for the boy to traipse from one wing of the school to another for his day-ending “general science” class. The hallways — which should have been boisterous, particularly on a Friday afternoon – were somber. Most kids passed by with dazed, uncomprehending looks on their faces. The school’s lead cheerleader, attired in uniform for some reason that day and normally as giddy as her extracurricular role called for, wept uncontrollably.

As the desks in the science class filled up, school work was the last matter on anyone’s minds, including the middle-aged teacher’s. He stood motionless at the front of the room, arms crossed and eyes staring at the floor. What was he to say or do? Nothing, as it turned out, because the intercom started up again, with the principal coming on and saying simply that we would proceed to listen to the radio.

The specifics over the next 20 minutes or so got grimmer and grimmer. Then, the news that a few hours before would have seemed unfathomable — the president was dead.

The boy happened to be seated next to a friend who even then was an ardent Democrat (remaining true to his youthful commitment, that fellow recently ended a lengthy stint as party chairman in Washington state). The friend’s blue, three-ring loose-leaf notebook already had a bumper sticker pasted diagonally across the cover: “Kennedy-Johnson ’64.”

A tear trickled down the friend’s cheek as he grabbed hold of one end of the bumper sticker and slowly ripped it off.

The Census Bureau insists that the Baby-Boom generation is defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. The man that the 12-year-old grew into has always questioned that parameter. In generational terms, there is a divide, he believes, a clear historical chasm between those who can recall that day 50 years ago — and the illusions that it shattered and the turmoil it portended — and those who don’t.

Stan Stearns (1935-2012) took this picture for UPI.

 

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