I was 23, a senior at CCNY in New York city, on that Friday — again this year the date falls on a Friday — and had come home to our apartment after my morning classes for a quick lunch. The television was on in the background as I made myself a sandwich. My plan for the afternoon was to collect my mother at her place of work before driving to our family’s summer camp, which was just then in the throes of being renovated into a year-round residence.
Suddenly there was the familiar colorless face of Walter Cronkite reporting that shots were fired in Dallas at the President’s motorcade at around 1 p.m. in New York, noon Dallas time. I stopped eating and sat transfixed on our 10-year-old, 16-inch, black-and-white TV screen. I don’t remember whether America’s sage father figure said the president had been wounded or not, but I knew I wasn’t moving until I knew more. Soon enough he reported emotionally the tragic and almost incomprehensible news that John F. Kennedy, our youthful president, was dead. We had a new president, Cronkite said. I knew he was nothing like his predecessor.
I sat, unable to move for several minutes. Then I tried repeatedly to call my mother, thinking she wouldn’t know what had happened. It was impossible to make a phone call. No dial tone. No ring tone if you could dial. The system was obviously overloaded with the news. I gave up and got into my recently acquired 1955 Pontiac and drove to Westchester County listening to the radio all the way, and realizing that the world had changed that day. Nothing would be quite the same again. This day was a marker that defined a before and an after in some inchoate way. Not unlike July 15, 1945, when the first successful atomic detonation happened in New Mexico. In both instances we now have many years of history to tell us just how fundamentally everything changed.
To say I was politically unsophisticated on Nov. 22, 1963, would be a world-class understatement. Mostly I knew I wasn’t a Republican, but I’m not sure I could have explained very clearly why. Some of that realization was due to Kennedy’s bright-eyed intelligence, his incisive wit, thousand-watt smile and love of life. He had become a symbol of an optimistic and limitless future for the country, of my generation. He had appealed directly to us in a very personal way, and several of my college friends had already responded by signing up for one of his signature initiatives: the Peace Corps. The difference between the alert and alive Kennedy and the dour grandfather president, Eisenhower who symbolized the colorless conformity of the 1950s, was a gap as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. The difference between Kennedy and Johnson, it seemed to me, was little different.
Clichés abound: The sense of a bright future dimmed, innocence shattered, our youthful idealism forever damaged, even before the horror of Viet Nam that LBJ subsequently visited on our country and theirs. But they are true nonetheless.
My mother got into the car. She knew by that time, and didn’t complain that I was late. We drove in silence for 45 minutes to our summer camp, now a primitive construction site. I knew she voted for Kennedy in 1960. I was still too young to vote that year, but I encouraged her to vote for him. She was always silent when something really bothered her. It quickly dawned on me that she was 17 in Austria when the Archduke Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo in late June 1914, and she well remembered the war that soon came afterwards. Was that what would happen to us now?
When we arrived it was clear the contractors had left early because of the news, and left a big mess behind, which I, as the general contractor, was supposed to clean up. My mother pitched in. We toiled together, mostly still in silence, and had the television on. As JFK’s casket came off Air Force One in Washington, with the First Lady still in her blood-spattered dress accompanying it, we watched the scene, looked at each other, and realized we had to go home to the city and mourn properly. It was the respectful thing to do. We left the mess for another day, and drove back to Manhattan again in silence.
Somehow I think a greater, wider silence created on that day has never been broken for those of us alive then. Even after 50 years.
Richard Knabel lives in West Tisbury.