WOSTER: Before Dallas, we were young
Saturday is the day after the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I could have written something before the half-century anniversary. I chose to wait, at least until I experienced part of the day of the 50th. I kind of wanted to see how I felt about five decades passing since my young world was shattered, along with the worlds of people, young and old, across much of the country.
Some of the memories have faded. Others remain as sharp as the polished boots turned backwards in the stirrups of a spirited, rider-less horse. The horse, Black Jack, pranced and shied all down a long, wide Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol building, where the body of the president would lie in state. The only sounds in that procession were the clack of the horse’s hooves and the soft cadence of drums. I watched that procession on the Sunday after the assassination and the funeral services the next day with my mom. We sat at home in the half-darkened living room, barely exchanging a word as the images appeared on the screen of our bulky console television set.
The assassination happened on Nov. 22, a Friday then as it is this year. Newly sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the Monday of the funeral a national day of mourning. Much of the country mourned throughout the weekend. In the living room of the house where I grew up, my mom and I took in every moment of each event even as we struggled without success to actually take in any of it.
It was a time before color commentators sullied the awful dignity of such national and world events. The commentators and reporters spoke, sure, but they also allowed the images of the grieving family and mourning nation to speak for themselves. No one watching any of that event, from the first, incoherent bulletins on the previous Friday afternoon to the last seconds of the funeral, needed to be told what to feel and how to interpret what they watched. We felt shaken, and we watched a most terrible moment in the history of the United States.
I’d driven from Brookings to St. Paul early on the Saturday morning after the assassination. My girlfriend was a student at College of St. Catherine. Her school called off classes for the next week, Thanksgiving week. I borrowed a car and went to bring her home. We were in the same town for the rest of the weekend, and we hadn’t seen each other for weeks, but we spent much of our time apart, in our own homes, just watching and wondering and half afraid in a country where a president could be killed.
I’d been feeling those things since shortly after 1 p.m. on the Friday when a non-commissioned officer interrupted our sophomore ROTC class, Principles of Warfare, to tell us that the commander-in-chief had been shot. Class continued for a few minutes, but then word came down that the school was canceling the rest of the day’s schedule. With no more classes and no desire to sit alone in my dorm room, I went to the journalism building and joined a small group of students who clustered near The Associated Press teletype machine and read each new dispatch from Dallas and Washington, D.C.
That evening, students packed Horatio’s, a downtown tavern. We drank some beer, but it wasn’t a happy crowd, and the place cleared out early for a Friday evening. Well before dawn the next morning, I set out for St. Paul.
It’s difficult to explain how much the assassination altered my sense of what is right. I tell people it was a special time before Kennedy fell, a time of promise and hope and the belief that — as Peter, Paul and Mary have sung throughout their career — “Justice will somehow prevail.” I believed that. All evidence to the contrary — mistreatment of many groups of people, a Cold War raging, the escalating conflict in Vietnam — I believed justice would somehow, someday, prevail.
I was never swept up in the whole “Camelot” thing, but for that brief, shining moment, I did believe.
I was young.