By G. Michael Dobbs
When I boarded Mrs. Tudryn’s bus at the end of the school day on Nov. 22, 1963, there was a buzz of urgent conversation, something about the president being assassinated.
I asked our bus driver, an imposing figure who was still very kind to her charges, if she was talking about Abraham Lincoln, who we had discussed in class. She said no, and told me that President John F. Kennedy had been killed.
I was in fourth grade and 9 years old. All I remember was puzzlement. Someone had killed the president?
I’m sure my parents had the television set on throughout this period. We were an NBC household and my mom and dad religiously watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
I don’t recall them talking about this very much, but I’m sure they did. At the time my father was stationed at Westover Air Force Base and attached to the 99th OMS. He was no longer a B-52 pilot due to a terrible injury he had suffered on the job just three years previously.
I’m sure the B-52 crews were on alert and sitting in the “Mole Hole” awaiting orders. “The Mole Hole” was an underground barracks where the designated B-52 crews who were to take on an assignment stayed, until they were replaced by other crews in a rotation.
After all, what would the death of a president mean? The Cuban Missile Crisis had been just about a year ago. We had been stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., at that time and when a stray weather balloon drifted over the city people panicked thinking it was some weapon launched from Cuba.
How would the rest of the world react? What would Nikita Khrushchev, the feared Russian premier, do?
My next clear memory is watching the television on Nov. 24, 1963. It was a Sunday and there was live press coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused killer, being escorted through Dallas Police Department.
Seldom in American history up until that point had millions of citizens seen an act of such historic violence play out live before their eyes.
Again, I know I was confused by what I saw. A man who was not a police officer simply walked up to Oswald, who was accompanied by various members of law enforcement and shot him in the abdomen. How does that happen?
I know, like so much of the nation, I watched parts of Kennedy’s state funeral and years later when I was in college I was fascinated by the questions that had arisen about the assassination. I was attending the University of Massachusetts and went to a lecture by Mark Lane, the investigator whose book “Rush to Judgment” had been a New York Times bestseller in 1976.
Lane was prominent among the voices that were critical of the conclusion of the Warren Commission. By the time I was in college, questioning the conventional wisdom around the event was commonplace. I eagerly read investigative reporter’s Robert Sam Anson’s book “They’ve Killed the President!” and still have the paperback.
By then as well we had heard much about Kennedy that we former 9-year-olds could never have imagined about a president: his sexual conquests outside of marriage. If assassination conspiracy books were a cottage industry so were claims made by women that they had slept with the president.
But even that time was a long time ago. Today, political scandals are a dime a dozen, the mother’s milk of the 24-hour news cycle. People consume them, talk about them, forget them and move onto the next one.
Fifty years later, I think most people who lived through that time are more inclined to remember Kennedy for what he did as president, both good and bad. He did begin the process of involving the county into the Vietnam conflict. He also stared down Khrushchev and had the missile removed from Cuba.
He started the Peace Corps, and put the space program on the path to land a man on the moon. He supported efforts to end segregation and increase civil rights.
Considering he did not finish one term, his accomplishments had a real and positive impact on the history of the country.
History remains alive as long those who remember it directly are alive as well. Once those people pass, events such as John F. Kennedy’s presidency and life simply become something written on a page and seen in archival footage.
Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.