Without knowing much of anything about guns, that’s what immediately crossed my mind at the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago.
You are astonished by how close everything is, how nestled into a small, convenient triangle for a would-be assassin. It is hard to imagine a more perfect place to shoot a president. Dealey Plaza looked like a movie set for the world’s best known assassination movie.
Any ideas you ever had about conspiracies, the existence of more than one shooter, the Grassy Knoll, actor Woody Harrelson’s father (a convicted killer for a time a favorite of conspiracy theorists) are put to rest standing in Dealey Plaza.
Rather, you shake your head at the innocence of the time, the naïve belief that you could put a popular, charismatic president in an open automobile and send him slowly through the streets of a major U.S. city, and he would be just fine. Innocence ran away that day, and it hasn’t been back since.
Like just about everyone of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was on November 22, 1963: closing a locker on a Friday afternoon at Brockville Collegiate Institute where I was a grade nine student. Something was in the air about President Kennedy. Had he been shot? The rumor ran like a pulse through the school.
The vice principal, a small, mustached education bureaucrat, happened along at that moment. I turned to him and asked, “Mr. Grant is it true the president has been shot?’
And Mr. Grant replied in the impersonal, formal voice of someone who could care less, “Yes, I believe that is the case.” The sound of that toneless bureaucrat’s voice has haunted me for fifty years.
Numb with disbelief, I staggered home and did what everyone else did at the time, I turned on the television. By then the American networks had broken off their regular programming and were broadcasting live.The clear, rumbling baritone of Walter Cronkite confirmed the president was dead.
Dead. In Dallas, Texas. What the blazes was Kennedy doing in Dallas, anyway? I remember thinking. The answers, of course, became painfully evident as the weekend wore on. I don’t think I ever left the television. No one in our family did.
Early Sunday morning, still half asleep, I turned on the TV in time to watch Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald live and in black and white. I was fifteen years old. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Like just about everyone else, I was enthralled with Jack Kennedy, the young, handsome president with the beautiful wife. One tends to forget what a drab, monochromatic time it was–the men wore hats still, the women showed up in white gloves. There was a certain grim formality about everything.
The Kennedys, on the other hand, were in color, vivid, alive, full of energy. The White House in faraway Washington was Camelot, and JFK was its dashing king accompanied by Jacqueline, his glamorous queen.
I bought into all of it. A lonely teenage kid in search of a role model in a small Eastern Ontario town had found one in John Kennedy. The Kennedy adventures were chronicled in the pages of Life and Look magazines. I devoured them, and anything else about the Kennedys I could find. Trying my hand at oil painting, my first subject was JFK.
That Friday in 1963, young and oh-so impressionable, I felt like something very personal and close had been taken away. Director Oliver Stone, who made JFK, a goofy but riveting pro-conspiracy movie about the assassination, rightly noted that no matter what you thought about Kennedy’s death, afterwards, nothing was ever the same again.
In the next five years as I left high school to pursue a newspaper career, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated; America, caught up in the horrors of Vietnam, appeared to be going up in flames; and, heaven help us all, Richard Nixon was becoming the most corrupt president in U.S. history.
Through it all, like so many others of my generation, I never shook off my fascination with or admiration for John F. Kennedy, the belief that had he lived, the world would have been a whole lot better.
(The first real criticism I encountered about Kennedy came from David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter who wrote The Best and the Brightest, a lacerating book about the intellectuals and academics of the Kennedy administration who laid the groundwork for America’s catastrophic involvement in the Vietnam war. Reading the book and talking to Halberstam, whom I greatly admired, left me in shock.)
A few years after his death, on a gray, overcast day, accompanied by my mother and brother, I visited Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery with its eternal flame and Washington spread out in the mist below.
Later, I eagerly stood in line to shake Teddy Kennedy’s hand when he was on the stump for the ill-fated presidential candidacy of George McGovern.
On my first visit to Los Angeles, I stayed at the Ambassador Hotel, home of the legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub and, more notorious by that time, the place where Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Bobby Kennedy.
I was having dinner in the Ambassador’s dining room with the late cartoonist, author, and TV personality Ben Wicks, when we got to talking with the hotel manager. It had not occurred to us until then that we were feet away from the spot where Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The manager led us back to the kitchen.
It was late, and the kitchen was deserted. A single light shone through the dimness illuminating the floor where Bobby had fallen that June night in 1968. Nothing in the kitchen marked the spot. It was the forgotten assassination site.
As soon as I got to Dallas on a cold February day, I hailed a cab and drove to Dealey Plaza. The Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald had shot Kennedy from a sixth story window, was closed for renovations. I found a position on the grassy knoll overlooking Elm Street and gazed at the spot where Kennedy had been shot.
The moment was overwhelming. For a boy of fifteen, the death of the president seemed surreal and impossible. As an adult standing in the reality of Dealey Plaza, it seemed even more surreal and more impossible.
Now all these years later, remembering that day and the boy closing a locker at a high school in a small Ontario town, one still can’t help but think of impossibilities, of hopes shattered, and dreams unfulfilled, about how far from Dallas we have come and yet how close it all remains.
Still standing in Dealey Plaza. Thinking…