We were out of the driveway, five kids and our parents packed tightly into the 1960 Ford station wagon before it was revealed to me that we were leaving Michigan for good for a new life back East in New York.
“What about all my friends?” I cried. “I need to say goodbye to Robert Roe.” At some level, I had known for weeks that we were preparing to move, yet reality had not sunk in to my 10-year-old mind until the family car pulled out and we stopped to let my mother hug a neighbor friend.
I don’t know why I mentioned Robert, my favorite school playground football player. There were plenty of kids from our rural neighborhood outside Kalamazoo that I was leaving behind without a word of farewell.
“Everyone moves,” my father told me. “If you don’t move, your friends will move.”
Those were words I never forgot, even though I didn’t believe them and felt powerless and tricked by my parents into leaving behind everything that mattered. I could feel the roots of my 10-year-old life being ripped from the soil.
That was Nov. 16, 1963. My parents distracted me, promising we would spend the next day, my 11th birthday, at Niagara Falls – one of the Wonders of the World we knew only from textbooks, magazines like National Geographic and the postcards I collected. The ploy worked, at least for one road day filled with anticipation and then our day there. We were overwhelmed by the majesty of the falls as we stood amid the spray and roar. For a moment, I forgot about the life and friends I had left behind.
After a few days living in motels, we met the movers at our new home in the New York suburb of Pearl River, where the real estate agent assured my parents that all the families in the neighborhood were Catholic like us or Jewish, an unfamiliar word for me. No black families lived there, she said, as if that was required knowledge for every arriving white family.
Nov. 22, 1963. My father and mother went upstairs to unpack boxes in the master bedroom. I was tasked with connecting the television to the roof antenna cable in the “recreation room” of our big new home.
The scrambled black and white static on the screen of our RCA slowly turned into “As The World Turns,” almost immediately interrupted by a CBS News Bulletin and the familiar voice of Walter Cronkite.
I’ve since watched the videos and listened to the audio more than a few times, each time letting the experience send me back to the time in life when I stopped being a child.
“This is a CBS news bulletin. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by the shooting.”
The bulletin ended abruptly and gave way to a soap actor leading man holding a lighted cigarette. Then the screen switched to Cronkite in the CBS newsroom.
I shouted to my parents that “the president has been shot.” They came racing down the stairs and into the room, my mother swooning. We were Catholics and she had voted for JFK. My father was a World War II Navy vet, a Cold War conservative who had voted for Richard Nixon.
We stood and listened wordlessly, my brothers joining us, as Cronkite passed along updates, talked about the President’s visit to an unwelcoming city, and his open convertible motorcade through downtown Dallas with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connolly and his wife Nellie.
Then Cronkite put his heavy framed glasses back on and uttered the famous words, “From Dallas, Texas, the Flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Cronkite removed, then returned his glasses to his face, pausing as he struggled with his own emotions.
“Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know where he has proceeded. Presumably he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
I knew even at the age of 11 that if I couldn’t be professional baseball player I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and the ensuing days were spent in front of the television or at night lying in bed with my transistor radio near my ear.
Two days after the assassination I was in front of the television to watch police move Lee Harvey Oswald from the basement of the Dallas police station to the more secure county jail. The room was crowded with police, officials, hangers-on, reporters, photographers and cameramen. A man lunged toward Oswald and his plain clothes escorts, a pistol shot was fired and pandemonium broke out. History was made on live television as I watched.
Sixteen years later I would move to Dallas to work as a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald, the newspaper that won the Pulitzer Prize for photographer Robert Jackson’s perfect capture of the moment Ruby shot Oswald.
Both the Times Herald and the Dallas Morning News were still publishing stories periodically about the assassination, the Warren Commission Report and conspiracy theories. For a young reporter of my generation, the Kennedy reporters still chasing leads so many years later seemed like grizzled old hacks from another era. In those days, just about every day in the newsroom ended in a bar with reporters and editors declaring a truce in the daily news wars to share drinks and war stories. I heard a book’s worth of tales from the old timers like Hugh Aynesworth, Earl Golz, and others who were there or whose reporting careers were largely defined by their assassination coverage.
One reporter, Mike Cochran – one of the finest wordsmiths of his generation or any other – was a legendary reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by the time I arrived in Dallas in 1979. He would become a friend over the years as his long career took him to the Associated Press bureau in Dallas. Last week he penned a memorable piece recalling how fate made him one of Oswald’s pallbearers at his bleak burial service. It’s a good read: “Ex-AP writer recalls serving as Oswald pallbearer.”
The Texas Book Depository, the grassy knoll, Parkland Hospital, all became familiar places to me during my time there. Here is a link to an Atlantic Cities piece published today that offers a good “then and now” look.
Like most journalists in my generation, I’ve read more books about the Kennedy assassination than I can recall and, like most, I believe Oswald was the lone gunman. I’ve always believed, however, that the motive for JFK’s killing was never firmly established or proven, nor was motive in Ruby’s killing of Oswald. They might have been lone gunmen, but I am inclined to think both acted on the belief that they were serving larger forces or causes.
We probably will never know. Fifty years later, I am now one of the aging journalists, my own memories of Nov. 22, 1963 resurrected one more time before they fade back into memory.