looked exactly like a wanted poster in the post office: it was John Kennedy, full face and profile, and the flyer said he was “Wanted for Treason.” Below that his crimes were listed, seven items such as: betraying the Constitution, giving support to communist-inspired racial riots, appointing anti-Christians to federal office, and lying to the American people about his previous marriage and divorce.
I brought the flyer in with the paper and read it on the way to the breakfast table. I had heard most of it before—who hadn’t?—the same old right-wing tirade, although I remember wondering about Kennedy’s “previous marriage and divorce.” Since I was already running late to school I didn’t read the News that morning, although later in the day one of my first instincts was to save the paper, as did many other people in Dallas. After all, it was now a historical document.
Although some kids were let out of school in Houston and San Antonio when the president’s motorcade passed through, in Dallas we had no such luck and could only be excused to the custody of a parent. So like most of my classmates I was in school when it happened. It was in algebra class right after lunch. Mr. Irvin Hill was describing a parabola on the blackboard when three tones came over the public address system and the principal started to speak. We actually knew something was wrong before he said a word, because there was a choked pause and we could hear a radio in the background.
“The president has been shot.”
It was only a fraction of a moment before he gave us details and then played the radio commentary into the P.A. for the remainder of the hour. But in that fraction the world we knew turned into ghosts and fled. It happened!—the thing we had been waiting for. We were dazed and excited. We turned in our chairs and looked in each other’s faces, finding grins of astonishment. Something happened! At that point in my life I knew no more about the nature of the tragedy than a blind man knows about the color blue. All I knew was that life could change, it had changed at last. Wasn’t this what we had been waiting for? We asked the question with our eyes, looking for some fixed response to this new flood of circumstance. We were giddy and scared, and as for me I was grateful for the loss of innocence.
“…shot in the head, Governor Connally wounded…”
Some of the details were off base. We heard that Johnson was shot too, he was seen entering Parkland Hospital holding his arm. Who else? Were they killing everybody? I don’t think I ever paused to think who they were; I knew. At that moment I supposed we were in the middle of a right-wing coup.
And as we sat there, gazing crazily at each other and at the P.A. box, I finally noticed Mr. Hill and realized that tears were streaming down his wrinkled cheeks. His chest was beginning to heave, then he sobbed in great barks, and everyone now was watching him, studying him as if he had the answer for our own reactions. But his grief was a private thing, and he picked it up like the greatest burden he had ever carried and walked out of the room. As he left I felt the first prodding overture of shame.
“The president is dead.”
It was a shock how much the world hated us—and why? Oswald was only dimly a Dallasite. He was a Marxist and an atheist; you could scarcely call him a product of the city. He was, if anything, the Anti-Dallas, the summation of everything we hated and feared. How could we be held responsible for him?
The world decided that Kennedy had died in enemy territory, that no matter who had killed him, we had willed him dead. And yet the truth is that we were under the spell of Camelot like everyone else. Although we were filled with resentment toward the privileged, arrogant East Coast society that Kennedy represented, it was a resentment born of envy and intense curiosity. We felt inferior. That Jacqueline Kennedy spoke French and some Spanish was impressive to us; the only people I knew who were bilingual were inner-city Mexican kids. We admired Mrs. Kennedy’s taste, we liked for her to be at home with the great musicians and artists of the world, and her breathless, Marilyn Monroe voice intimated that she was not all white gloves and pillbox hats. The Kennedys invested the country with a self-conscious eroticism that was nicely bridled by the presence of young children in the White House. In short, we had the ordinary human identification with the occupant of the presidency that most Americans did. I can even remember Kennedy phrases creeping into my father’s vocabulary. My father spoke of “moving ahead with vigor,” and when I’d ask him a question he was likely to preface his response with “Let me say this about that.” Kennedy hated wearing hats, and so my father, along with nearly every other male in the country, gave up wearing them.
We had drawn closer to Kennedy even as the rest of the country grew disenchanted. The disgrace of the Bay of Pigs actually helped him in Dallas; there was something noble and chastening about seeing Kennedy humbled. My father admired the way Kennedy accepted the blame. The Cuban missile crisis showed Dallas that Kennedy had learned the use of power; it also showed us the danger of Ted Dealey’s bluster. Mother bought canned goods and bottled water. We got an extra store of candles, flashlight batteries, and a transistor radio that had the Conelrad stations marked with nuclear triangles. I remember writing to my Italian pen pal that by the time he received my letter we would surely be at war with Cuba, probably Russia as well, and who knows? Perhaps the world would be destroyed before I got his response.