The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a week away. It is here that I draw my reference and contemplate the events that changed my view of the world, along with many others of my generation.
I was born when Harry Truman (“The Buck Stops Here”) was president. The 1950s, with President Dwight Eisenhower in office, were happy days. My memory is of warm summer nights, playing hide-and-seek with the old neighborhood gang.
The election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 was a big deal in our family. I believe it was my father’s first opportunity to vote, as he was a naturalized citizen who emigrated with his parents from Canada.
President Kennedy’s famous news conferences perked my interest in what happened outside of my own neighborhood. John F. Kennedy was the first modern-day president who had charisma and inspired me to think and ask questions. I found myself glued to the TV every time he had a news conference.
Then that awful day — Nov. 22, 1963.
I was in Mr. Rykinbell’s English class when the school public address system came on with the local public radio station airing the news that the president was shot, and then, moments later, announcing that the president was dead.
I remember a classmate named Mary beginning to cry, expressing the unbelievable sorrow we all felt at that unbelievable moment. For the next four days, I was glued to the TV set, as many others, including those of my generation, watched the nation mourn his death. The funeral march cadence, the coffin on a wooden wagon drawn by a team of horses, the single black horse with no rider, the sound of the horses’ hooves as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue lined with thousands of people in total silence are forever etched in my memory.
In the days, weeks, and years after President Kennedy was buried, as I grew up, I listened as the conspiracy theories and mistrust of government became more and more vocal. President Lyndon Johnson took over and later won a convincing 1964 victory over Senator Barry Goldwater, but he seemed overshadowed by the Kennedy mystique. He misjudged public reaction to the Vietnam War and eventually declined to seek another term.
The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Senator Robert F. Kennedy rocked our nation. Richard Nixon, talking law and order, captured the 1968 presidential election. His re-election in 1972, defeating Senator George McGovern, was a convincing victory, but we continued to question our government. We all know about the Watergate mess, President Nixon’s resignation, and the swearing in of Gerald Ford as president. This was almost revolutionary, although not a shot was fired. We owe President Ford gratitude for keeping our political process together and helping our nation move on.
In the years that followed, President Jimmy Carter just seemed to have difficulty being president. The economy and the Iran hostage crisis led to his defeat when he ran for re-election. Then we elected the first Hollywood actor, President Ronald Reagan. But we owe him gratitude for his efforts in ending the cold war.
During the evolving presidential history, from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, a former president’s son, the nation had become tired of international conflicts and sensationalized, 24/7 debate about presidential indiscretion. After Sept. 11, he became a modern wartime president against terror. And then, America elected its first black president, Barack Obama.
I reflect back to when I was a young boy listening and watching President Kennedy at televised press conferences, hearing about his response to the Cuban missile crisis, the race to the moon, and many more amazing or difficult events. I witnessed his assassination and funeral on radio and TV.
Now it is 50 years later. My hotel controller’s organization has a conference in Dallas and I have never been there. My partner, Joyce, obtains information and makes plans for our visit to Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum at the Texas School Book Depository on Saturday afternoon after my conference is over.
Joyce and I and a close friend arrive at the site of the tragic event. It is difficult to express the emotions I feel. We see the X markings on the paved street, representing the shots that hit the president. A docent tells us the first X marks the shot that hit him in the throat and the second X is the site of the fatal shot. I keep staring at the Xs — the feeling is profound.
We leave the Dealey Plaza area and enter the Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas School Book Depository Building. It is a gallery of photos and news clippings from J.F.K.’s beginnings to his assassination and the aftermath. And, of course, the corner window where Lee Harvey Oswald perched over boxes with rifle in hand waiting for the president. The section is walled off in glass, preventing anyone from going too close. There is a seventh floor that welcomes visitors to a gallery with more pictures of President Kennedy and recent photos of other presidents and famous people.
As Joyce and I walk around, we discover an area that is not part of the photo gallery, but a room with no visible indication that this is an entrance to another space. We enter. There are four chairs on a raised platform with a long, black, floor-to-ceiling curtain behind them and a small number of chairs theater style in front of the platform. To the left, at the corner of the room, is an exposed window.
I walk over to it and look out. To my astonishment I can see the X markings on the street. I realize that I am standing directly above the window in which Lee Harvey Oswald stood on Nov. 22, 1963, from which he fired those shots that changed the course of history. It is hard to put into words the emotions you have when you are a virtual witness to such an overwhelming historical event.
I sign the visitors guest book and leave a message. I hope that some day my grandchildren will visit, come across what I have written, and experience and understand what their Papa felt about that horrible day as a young boy and as an adult 50 years later.
Gary Hodgins lives in Montauk where he is the controller of Gurney’s Inn.