Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty years

Site of fatal shot (Bob Warwick photo)

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, about half way through social studies, the next to the last class of the day, Walter Langhorst announced to his class that the president of the United States of America had been shot in Dallas. A few minutes later, the president's death was announced over the public address system. School was closed, sending everyone home until after the holiday.

The expected exuberance of adolescents freed from the shackles of the school room was replaced by a nervous quiet. Conversations were held in low tones barely louder than a whisper. No one knew what to think. Death was something that happened to elderly relations, or unknown uncles killed "in the war."

The news was almost impossible to absorb. The president was dead. Our parents remembered the death of another president not quite a generation earlier. But that, everyone seemed to agree, was different. That president had been ill and was older.

Dallas was in Texas, a place we associated with cowboys and the Alamo. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

A sense of unease permeated the land. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a recent—and terrifying memory. The adolescents learned to “duck and cover” in kindergarten. Annihilation by nuclear bomb was an accepted possibility.

America gathered around its television sets and watched the same snippets of film over and over. Everything was cancelled, except church. Citizens exercised their freedom of religion to attend worship services and pray for the repose of the soul of the young president. Tuning in to watch throngs files past his coffin as he lay in state in D. C., they were in time to see the purported assassin himself gunned down leaving way too many unanswered questions.

On Monday, the world watched the funeral replete with tradition, dignity, and pathos. The nation wept as one when the little boy in the blue coat saluted his father one last time.

Families gathered for Thanksgiving, all too aware of the fragility of life. Things got back to normal and life went on.
Before the decade was over, America would deal with two more assassinations. An ugly, incomprehensible, and far away war would become a daily staple on the nightly news.

Fast forward a half century to Dealey Plaza, the site of the Dallas assassination. The adolescents of 1963 will soon be pensioners. America has been to the moon and back.

Built as a WPA project during the 1930’s, Dealey Plaza seems frozen in time. Standing behind the pillar where Abraham Zapruder filmed the crime of the century gives the sensation of being in a video game.

Two large crosses are painted in the center lane to denote the exact position of the presidential limousine when the shots were fired. Tourists routinely dodge traffic to pose for pictures where the kill shot hit its target in 1963.
Tourists dodge traffic for macabre mementoes of Dealey Plaza (Bob Warwick photo)

A museum about the assassination occupies the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have built a sniper nest. Countless alternatives to the official scenario exist. We may never know what really happened, or why.

The iconic words spoken by John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961--ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country—are tragically ironic in the America of 2013 where far too many contribute nothing and expect much.

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