Friday, November 22, 2013


Fifty years ago today, I sat in the school cafeteria of Southwestern Elementary in Georgia with my fellow second-graders, in fact with the entire school, as we watched a TV that had been hastily set up at the front of the room. At least, that’s how I remember it.

The tragic day when John F. Kennedy was shot is probably the earliest memory I have of an event outside of my own life.  I was seven years old at the time and likely didn’t have a firm grasp of the news coming out of Dallas that afternoon. Maybe at the time it was hard to grasp for anyone of any age. I, like most of the rest of the country, was infatuated with Kennedy. (On my part, as I recall, it was largely because his name almost sounded like my own. I was only a little kid, after all.)

I can’t recall if I, with the embryonic world-view of a little kid, was traumatized in any way by the events that day or had any real inking of their historic gravity, beyond the fact that our teachers had gathered us all together to witness it.

And I don’t remember anything any adult in the cafeteria that day might have said to us about the events unfolding in Texas, or even later as the whole nation worked through its grief over the slaying of a president.

What I do remember is taking it upon myself to enlighten one of my classmates as we sat there in the cafeteria. Besides learning that President Kennedy had been shot, we had also heard that the Governor of Texas, John Connally, who was riding in the same open car as JFK, had also been hit. It’s possible that we even thought he’d also been killed.

With a greater measure of confidence than accuracy, I informed my friend that a “governor” is the man who makes the money, as in actually creates the dollar bills. I quickly reassured him not to worry, though, since there are other people who know how to do that. Such was my gasp on the workings of government.

(A bit surprisingly, I also recall not being convinced when told that Jack Ruby had shot JFK’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald out of grief over the assassination. It didn’t sound right to me, though generally I don't go in for conspiracy theories at all. Perhaps whatever sense of cynicism I’ve ever possessed peaked at the age of seven.)

My wife, even younger and in faraway Finland, also remembers that day. She recalls how her father, upon hearing the news, walked over to the family’s bookcase, took down the encyclopedia volume containing the article on John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and penciled in this next to the date of birth: “kuollut 22.11.63”.

It was a kind of precursor to the continuous updating of history that now, in the age of Wikipedia and instant information, we are so accustomed to half a century after that horrible day when my young classmates and I tried to understand what was happening in Dallas. 

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