I sat at my desk on November 23, 2013, listening to Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem on satellite radio’s Symphony Hall, writing about something I could not the day before: the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Eugene Ormandy conducted this soulful piece on CBS television 50 years ago that evening in honor of President Kennedy, as most of the nation sat for the second day in what would be a span of four days, transformed and transfixed before their television sets.
Friday, November 22, 1963, began as a silly, reckless day for me and a group of my college friends. For whatever immature and fun reasons we gave ourselves, we gathered at the Tide bar in downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at 8 a.m. for beer and competitive games on the bar’s bowling and pinball machines, which provided most of the light in the place. Well, you know, we were just starting the weekend early. Furthermore, the next week would be Thanksgiving week when a lot of students didn’t go to classes anyway. Some reasons, huh?
We shoved quarters – or maybe it was dimes – into the jukebox as fast as it would eat them: Louie Louie, He’s So Fine, It’s My Party, Surfin’ U.S.A., My Boyfriend’s Back, Heat Wave, Up on the Roof, Da Doo Ron Ron. The jukebox put out the rest of all the light the Tide needed at 8 a.m. on a school day.
You can hear and buy any of these tracks on lots of Web sites; they still make money. Even my granddaughter loves It’s My Party and Da Doo Ron Ron. Long live Rock ‘n Roll!
Those days of the early sixties in the South were socially and mentally still the Fifties for most of us. The Sixties wouldn’t start getting real until that day and the next four days mercifully ended.
For some unfathomable reason, some of us at the Tide – after drinking beer all morning – decided that we needed to make our 1 p.m. class. I started asking around if anyone was headed to campus. Winston Groom and his girlfriend, Baba Golden, who would later become his wife, said they were going to class and I could ride with them. In Winston’s Austin Healy. Or maybe it was an MG. Whatever. I didn’t really know it until we left the Tide about 12:45 central time that it was a sunny, warm, clear November day in Alabama.
We stuffed ourselves into the car, Winston fired up the engine, and Baba turned on the radio. I clung to the door handle to give Baba room. Off we zoomed.
About halfway to campus we realized in a kind of dazed, slow motion way what we were hearing on the radio. My memory says it was Walter Cronkite, even though it was radio and not TV, but I could not bet money on it. Memories are at least fallible and too often gauzy tricksters.
The President had been shot in Dallas. If Winston or Baba or I said anything, I simply cannot remember it. We got to campus just as classes were changing; those coming out into the sun knew nothing.
I got out at Morgan Hall. I don’t remember where Winston or Baba were going or what class I was trying to get to. I floated up the stairs in a kind of gaseous state of consciousness surrounded by this horrific knowledge. Suddenly a moment hit me that was like toxic dirt being thrown into your face and eyes.
I heard someone say out loud, “Kennedy’s been shot. He’s dead.” I looked over to see this blonde-headed co-ed respond, “It’s about time someone shot him.”
My memory has held this girl in my mind’s vision for 50 years, and this memory is dead-on. I almost believe I would recognize her on a street.
I’ve lived through 49 other of these, but this 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been the hardest so far. Fifty years is but a gazillionth of a neutrino in space and time, but a 50th anniversary of most events beyond your own birth date is a long time in human years. JFK never saw 50 years of anything.
After November 22, 1963, reality would throw the dead bones of the Fifties into the fire to smolder. All of us would watch the Civil Rights movement that JFK made a priority in his administration play out in our front yard and down the roads, in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and other southern locations. We would soon be watching the Viet Nam war in our living rooms.
Winston left for Viet Nam a year or two after the November 22 event, survived and came home, and eventually wrote his Viet Nam novel Better Times Than These. We stayed in touch for a while, until Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, entered the public’s collective memory. He and Baba divorced, but he told me she had a successful import business somewhere near Washington, D.C.
My brother would leave for Viet Nam and not come back. His name is etched on the Viet Nam Wall on the Mall in Washington D.C.
And a friend told me a day or so ago that on this anniversary some girl said to her in a low voice so others wouldn’t hear, “I wish someone would assassinate Obama.”
Repulsive unflushed mental wastewater unleashed through the mouth. It’s sickening.
Has the South progressed? That is really not a good question, since the progress so many would point to is forced progress. The claws of reactionary beliefs and policies are still embedded in the skin of the South, and the untreated wastewater of racism still poisons real progress.
If that girl were forced to sit and watch those awful four days in November -- of the blood from JFK’s head all down the front of Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit, of her standing glassy eyed next to Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One, of the black veil covering Mrs. Kennedy’s face as the caisson and black riderless horse passed by her, of little John John saluting as the body of his father rode by him; if she had to watch the hoses shoving children down on the street and dogs jumping for the throats of non-violent Civil Rights activists in Birmingham, of young people being beaten up in South Carolina, Anniston, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; if she had to watch the horrors of the Viet Nam war play out in her own living room; if she had to watch a black body bag from Viet Nam being rolled down the ramp of a military airplane at her airport; if she had to live real, maybe this sewage would not so easily spew from her mouth.
Maybe next year, the anniversary will be easier.
Note: Winston Groom’s newest book, published by National Geographic press, is The Aviators. Critics are pointing to Winston’s inimitable story-telling skills to present biographies of Charles Lindberg, Eddie Rickenbacker, and James Doolittle, particularly their careers in World War II, rather than their better known exploits in World War I. A Mobile writer had a casual one-on-one with Winston in early summer.