Friday marks half-century since Kennedy assassination

Where were you when you heard the sombre news?

MANITOULIN—It is difficult for recent generations to fathom the shock and disbelief felt by those slightly older people who are able to recall the moment they first heard the news that the US president John F. Kennedy, JFK, had been shot in Dallas, Texas. That moment was 50 years ago from this Friday, November 22, a time before cell phones, before the Internet, before trending on Twitter and Facebook and in a time where text messaging often took place through the dots and dashes of morse code over copper telegraph wires, delivered by the hand of a human being.

Telephones were still tethered by wires and television, if not still in its infancy, had certainly not yet entered puberty, the MTV crowd was at least a generation away from being even a twinkle in their parents’ eye.

“It was horrible,” said Koki Maloney, who was doing the family ironing at her Ohio home with a three-year-old underfoot. “Of course like any housewife at the time, I was watching television.” (Multi-tasking, it seems, predates generations X, Y or even boom.)

Ms. Maloney called her husband Dick who was working at a small independent media studio at the time.

“My wife called the studio and told me, we said ‘nah, can’t happen’,” he recalled. “We spent the next hours, days really, glued to the television set as events kept unfolding. The capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, his assassination by Jack Ruby.” Dick and Koki Maloney now live in Mindemoya and have been full-time Manitoulin residents for many years.

The shock was palpable across the world.

“I was shopping in Lord & Taylor’s in New York,” recalled Manhattan Manitoulin author Bonnie Kogos. “The news shot across the store.” Stunned, shoppers sat down on the carpet, unable to comprehend the news. “It was so awful,” she said. “I just loved him. We went out into the street and everyone was just wandering around dazed on 5th Avenue.”

Ms. Kogos was shopping with one of her first paycheques. “I was working for a publishing company,” she said. “It was my first real job and I was working for a book club.”

“I was six-years-old and in Grade 1,” said Billings Heritage Centre curator and longtime JFK researcher Rick Nelson. “I don’t remember (the assassination) being told to us due to our age. Older students in the upper grades tell me that our principal came on the PA to say JFK had been shot. However, for the rest of that weekend, there were images that stick in my mind even for a kid of my age. I remember JFK’s casket being unloaded off Air Force One when the plane returned to Washington from Dallas. I remember Jackie and daughter Caroline kneeling before JFK’s coffin inside the capital rotunda. I remember the sounds of the parade drums as they took JFK out to Arlington National Cemetery.”

Most of the world stood in silent awe as those images played out on television screens and newsreels around the world.

It was years later, as a high school student, that Mr. Nelson would become enthralled with what was becoming one of the enduring mysteries of the Twentieth Century. He went on to host a major JFK assassination symposium in Sudbury a number of years ago, met and stayed with the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald, developing a friendship with the woman who remains staunchly convinced that her husband was not the assassin he was made out to be—a position supported by several credible researchers along with a host of conspiracy theorists for whom that position is a starting point.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, major media outlets of the time had little or no precedent, nor protocol to follow, with which to guide them in dealing with the news.

“Sure, there had been wars and disasters,” recalled Mr. Maloney. “But they had no idea how to react.” He recalled radio stations filling the airwaves with classical music. “No bubbly, no happy.”

Television’s reaction to the event enhanced the shock and air of unreality of the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Housewives across America, watching or listening to their favourite programs while going about their tasks as domestic engineers, found themselves cut off from the escape of soap operas and game shows and hammered by the delivery of the news, that the president had been shot, only to be returned to the normally scheduled program, re-interrupted moments later with the news of JFK’s transport to hospital with his wife Jackie, then back to a program like ‘The Edge of Night,’ only to be stunned yet again with the confirmation of his death. Television alternated back and forth with a surreal Dadaist assault on the sensibilities of a generation; a generation barely recovered from the traumas of the Second World War and the conflict in Korea. The Cold War was in full swing and the cord holding the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation had been severely frayed mere months before during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Kennedy assassination ripped away any cloth of remaining complacency from the minds of the public.

“Assassinations like this were things that happened someplace else,” said Mr. Maloney. “Things like this didn’t happen in the US. You would hear about these things happening around the world and you would think, ‘what kind of people would do this?’ Suddenly, you realize that people are people and that there are very troubled people everywhere.”

For many young people in school at the time their reactions were formed, often uncomprehending, by those of their teachers. Sitting in a Grade 2 classroom in an Ottawa separate school, this author recalls his own experience.

The teacher stepped out of the classroom into the hallway to speak with the principal. When she came back into the room, she was crying and her shoulders were shaking. She told her students that a great man had died and that we would be going home for the rest of the day.

Walking home from school through the newly created suburb of Britannica Park, I stopped at the duplex of one of my classmates, crying and upset, totally inconsolable. My classmate’s older brother was dismissive of my emotional display, reacting with the standard cynicism of the elementary school upperclassman towards the naivete of the lower orders. “You don’t even know who died,” he accused. I remember firing back with all of the indignation an outraged seven-year-old could muster. “I do too know who died—it was the Pope!”

The events that unfolded in the following days, weeks, months and years have become part of the lexicon of modern history, many nearly as traumatic for those who lived through them.

“For me, it was just as bad when his brother Robert was shot,” said Ms. Maloney. “I really wanted Bobby to be president. This all happened in the same era when Martin Luther King also got shot.”

“It got worse when Bobby got shot,” agreed Ms. Kogos. “You can’t compare the shootings. Both were devastating.”

The JFK assassination has become one of the favourite hunting grounds of conspiracy theorists and most Americans no longer buy into the lone assassin theory. Possible co-conspirators fingered by those with incontrovertible evidence include the mob, with variations that include a betrayed mobster, John Gianconna, a jealous Frank Sinatra seeking retribution over JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe (this is the favourite theory of my university friend and South African apartheid refugee Miasella Kekana), Russian members of the former KGB, Cuban agents of Fidel Castro (and some splinter theorists who finger angry Cuban anti-Castro rebels), the CIA and, in the latest twist, an accidental shooting by a fumbling presidential secret service guard.

“I was visiting some friends in Sudbury last week when I came up for a book reading event and there was a documentary on the television about the assassination,” said Ms. Kogos. “They were saying how the CIA arranged to shoot him because he was a dangerous president. I stood there and said ‘No, who isn’t a dangerous president?’”

Mr. Nelson, who has spent many years studying the event, including interviewing the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald and creating a television documentary, said that in the final analysis he believes the evidence is overwhelming that Mr. Oswald did shoot at the president on that unexpectedly sunny day in Dallas 50 years ago. “But did he act alone? Was he the only shooter? That is a question I don’t know if we will ever really know for sure,” he said.

There have been many epic catastrophes that have rocked American minds since the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, among the most recent the attack and destruction of the World Trade Centre and the explosion of the space shuttles, but few, if any, have had the impact of that moment in Dallas on the generation who stood witness.

But there are potential incidents which might. “For me, it would be if (president) Obama got shot,” said Ms. Maloney. “It would be the same thing.”

But for that seven-year-old who mourned the assassination of a pope named JFK, the environment of social media, the cult of tearing down all icons and personalities, the steady bombardment of the horrors of war, natural and manmade disasters and the hourly anecdotal examples humanity’s inhumanity to humanity that appears each and every moment on his Facebook and Twitter feeds—the conditions simply do not exist in society today to recreate the shock of that particular moment in history, except of course for the descent of that still dangling Sword of Damocles.

Michael Erskine