The Day Kennedy Died...November 22, 1963

    In August of 1963 I entered the United States Air Force. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I should have joined during a more favorable season of the year. Basic training in any branch of the service is grueling enough, but in San Antonio during the summer the blistering heat makes even resting uncomfortable. I can remember waking up more than one morning during basic to find my cot wet with my sweat from the insufferable nights.
      But like most green troops, I survived the ordeal and came home a little leaner and with much shorter hair to my bride of two years. I had been assigned to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, to study Russian, for what reason I had not yet determined. All I knew at the time was that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Russia, in general) was our cold war adversary, and I was going to be involved in the game somewhere.
     Arriving home in mid-November, Shirley and I began preparing for our journey northward to Indiana. We divided our time between our parents’ homes as we packed and planned. It was the first time we would be putting any distance between us and home (Baytown), and while it was exciting, it was also a little disconcerting. We both have very strong family ties.
     On Friday, November 22, 1963, we were visiting my parents at their rural property north of Baytown. It was around noon, and Shirley was helping my mother prepare a bit of lunch. Dad was at work at Downing Roofing Company, and I was in his barn tinkering around with something…I think it was his tractor…or maybe mower.
     About 12:45, Shirley suddenly ran into the barn, and yelled, “Bob! The president’s been shot!” We both ran back to the house and huddled up close to the radio. Yes, it was the radio. As far as I know, my mother and dad never owned a television. We listened intently as the events of the day played out, and by evening we knew the basic details of the tragedy which had taken place in Dallas. Being in the military, even as a raw recruit, I listened closely as the announcement went forth for any military personnel on leave and away from their bases of assignment to stand ready for any orders to return to their units. But no such order ever was issued.
     Before the sudden events of the day, I had been only loosely following the movements of President Kennedy. It has been forgotten now, but the reason for his political swing through the southern states and Texas was an attempt to shore up his sagging popularity in the South. Some of his New England liberal stances had not gone over well in the Bible Belt, and so his trip was a push to reveal his personal charm to the southern populace and blunt some of the political criticism.
     The next few days consisted of flurries of news bulletins and on the scene descriptions of the honoring and eventual burial of President Kennedy. On the day of the state funeral, we listened as the then-famous Walter Cronkite in his quiet, melodic voice described the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, and, as his voice broke with emotion, we, too, felt lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes. Needless to say, the entire nation stopped to view the proceedings on their black and white televisions…with the exception of those to whom television was a bane and who therefore were at the same time affixed to their radios. It would be years later before I actually saw the movies of Kennedy’s trip to Dallas and the ensuing days of mourning and funeral. “Life” magazine, the photo documentary magazine of the day, became a required purchase for everyone with its issue published a few days after the funeral. I had my copy for 45 years before selling it on eBay.
     Though all of us felt the tragedy of losing our president, when Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our next president aboard Air Force One, we in Texas felt a little bit of relief in knowing that the nation was in good hands with a fellow Texan at the helm. Little did we know that President Johnson within 18 months would begin a major buildup of troops in Viet Nam creating a war which would last more than ten years and cost more than 60,000 U.S. casualties. The eventual result was it cost President Johnson his chance for a second term in office and created a civil turmoil in the United States which lingers to this day.
     A few months after Kennedy’s death, Shirley and I were in Bloomington, Indiana, at a park enjoying a beautiful summer day. A car rolled by our camp site and the occupants, noticing our Texas plates on our car, yelled, “President killers, go home!” For a while Texas was judged harshly in the eyes of the nation.
     A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the book storage building in Dallas and stand at the very window where Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger and took the life of President Kennedy. It was a very sobering and thoughtful moment as I looked out on the street and plaza and imagined that day when the big Lincoln convertible slowly made its way past the crowds. The first controversy concerning Oswald was how he could fire three rounds at the president in seven seconds…with the conclusion being that there had to be another shooter. But anyone who has fired a rifle will tell you that three shots in seven seconds are easily managed, even with a bolt action rifle like Oswald had. Though there have been many conspiracy theories in the last fifty years, the evidence is still conclusive that Oswald acted alone. One macabre thing I saw the day I visited Dealey Plaza…a hawker across the street was selling photos of the Kennedy autopsy for $10.00. Only in Texas……
     I have read several articles in the last few days discussing how our country would be today if Kennedy had lived. It’s all conjecture, of course, but I think that Kennedy, being from the somewhat more liberal northeast, would have probably been a little less quick on the trigger than Johnson and perhaps the eventual outcome in Vietnam may have been different. He had weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis without bloodshed and had experience in dealing with the communists.  However, it was Kennedy who first ordered a military response to North Vietnam’s gunboat attacks on our destroyers the Gulf of Tonkin, so the Kennedy/Johnson comparison can go on indefinitely.
     What Kennedy had more than any other president, was personal charm.  Brandishing a boyish appearance complete with tousled hair and armed with an attractive wife, a successful family, and a military resume as a World War II hero, he embodied the new America…young, handsome, and capable. The “Age of Camelot” as his presidency has come to be called may never be repeated.  Fifty-three years...it doesn't seem possible.

            Interesting Facts Concerning the John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln Assassinations

  (1)  Lincoln was elected in 1860: Kennedy was elected in 1960.
  (2)  There are seven letters in each last name.
  (3)  Both presidents were slain on Friday in the presence of their wives.
  (4)  Both were directly concerned with Civil Rights.
  (5)  Both presidents had the legality of their elections contested.
  (6)  Kennedy's secretary, a person named Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.
  (7)  Lincoln's secretary, a person named Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theater.
  (8)  Both of their successors to the presidency were named Johnson.
  (9)  The successors, Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson, both have thirteen letters in their names.
(10)  Both Johnsons were Southern Democrats who served in the U.S. Senate.
(11)  Andrew Johnson was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
(12)  The assassins, Booth and Oswald, were both southerners who favored unpopular causes.
(13)  Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and hid in a theater.
(14)  Booth shot Lincoln from a theater and hid in a warehouse.
(15)  Both Booth and Oswald were killed before their trials could be arranged.
(16)  Lincoln and Kennedy were both carried in their funerals on the same horse drawn caisson.
(17)  Booth and Oswald were born 100 years apart.
(18)  The names, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, have eighteen letters.