I wasn’t going to write anything about the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. All the TV channels are overloaded with specials and documentaries, new books are out, news magazines are overflowing. I tend to look at it as another way for the mass media to capitalize on tragedy, which is what it seems to do best these days. But I watched NBC’s two-hour “Where Were You the Day JFK Died?” and seeing all the old footage, especially of the funeral procession and burial, prompts me to say something about those fateful days in 1963.
But what can I say that hasn’t already been said. I lived through it. I saw it all on TV from my home in Moorestown, N.J.. I was shocked, appalled. I worked in a shoe store in down town Philly at the time. A college drop out about to be drafted into the Army. What I remember was the unreality of it all. When the news broke over the portable radio we had in the Holiday shoe store a shocked silence fell over everyone in the place. Women started crying, the men stood dumbstruck. We closed early that day and I went out onto Chestnut St., to catch my bus back to Jersey, and the street was dead quiet. Not that there weren’t any people on the sidewalks or driving by in their cars. But they were all mute. It was like a street of ghosts. Mute ghosts walking in a daze on a street that suddenly seemed shrouded in fog. Was it fog, or were our eyes blurred by tears. I’m not sure.
That’s really all I can remember about that afternoon and evening. Later the even more shocking events of the following Sunday in Dallas rocked us all as we saw Jack Ruby bump Lee Harvey Oswald off. I was in a bakery buying rolls for Sunday breakfast when it all happened on the TV up on the wall behind the bakery counter. A live killing isn’t supposed to happen like that on TV while you’re buying Kaiser rolls for Sunday breakfast.
And then the funeral with John-John, Carolyn and Jackie. How did she ever manage that? One of the most beautiful, and heart-rending pageants anyone has ever witnessed. I mean if you weren’t around then, you just don’t know what it was like to witness it. And you just don’t know what it was like for anyone to go through that entire set of experiences. It’s no exaggeration to say that those events changed America, and unfortunately, not for the better. It seems to me we’ve been unraveling ever since.
Is it because we lost our courage, and our ability to hope and dream when an entire nation saw its leader cut down in such an ignominious way? Or is it because we saw what can happen to somebody who dared to dream and tried to ignite a nation’s spirit to make something out of those dreams? And is it possible to ever get that spirit back? I don’t know. Those are questions that will be answered only in the long stretch of times to come.
There’s something else I remember. It was about four months before the November election of 1960 and a man running for the Presidency was coming to the local shopping center on a campaign stop. I had no interest in politics. Didn’t care who ran for what. All politicians are alike, and what difference do they make. But I was curious to see the man called JFK. I went down to the shopping center, and stood at the back of the crowd. I was cool. Who cared what he had to say? But I’d hang back and check him out. He started to talk. A very short speech. But damn! The guy was young, compared to guys like Truman and Eisenhower. And there was something about him. Something almost magical.
As he talked I could help but find myself being drawn in as if by a magnet. I moved in through the crowd, got closer to the open Cadillac that he was speaking from. The speech ended and the car started to pull out. Kennedy leaned out and shook hands. And there I was, the cool one, who didn’t care about politicians, pushing my way through, just to touch his hand. I reached out and he grasped my hand and there was something–like a current that seemed to pass through me. The man was electric. And then, I swear, I felt one of the Cadillac’s tires run over the top of my right shoe. It felt as though it had gone over the tips of my toes. But I felt nothing. I looked down and the shoe was dented slightly, but my toes were alright! I watched the crowd follow the car as it went out into the street and went on to the next stop.
So when I watched the funeral three and a half years later, live in living black and white, I thought about how JFK’s car had run over my toes and nothing had happened to them. I wished he had been so lucky.