You rarely forget what you were doing at the time of a significant event – even if what you’re doing is mundane and unremarkable. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was addressing Christmas cards and watching TV. A news flash appeared on the screen: “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.”
Different reports came in. No one knew the president’s condition. It wasn’t long before Walter Cronkite turned back to the camera, declaring that our 35th president had died at 1 p.m. CST, in Dallas. Our hopes and quickly-uttered prayers still hung in the air. Tears flowed freely. What were we to do? How could we get through this? It had to be a nightmare, and we desperately wanted to wake up.
But it wasn’t, and we didn’t.
In 2020 we take for granted the ability to access events around the globe through television. Cameras are everywhere – even the International Space Station. But in the early years, live television across the United States was spotty.
President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One before it took off from Dallas that Friday afternoon. When word came about Lee Harvey Oswald being arrested, I was aghast he had lived in Fort Worth as a child. I was born in Fort Worth and roughly the same age as Oswald. Had I possibly gone to school with him? When I saw his photograph, I didn’t think so. But each new piece of information became a nightmare.
Late Friday evening, Air Force One landed, and we saw the cargo door opening. Men in business suits lifted the donated coffin and put it in a hearse. Jackie appeared in her blood-stained pink suit, trying to open one of the hearse doors, and her shoulders sagged. I felt the grief and exhaustion pouring from her slim figure and imagined the awfulness of the day she’d had – holding his bleeding head in her lap.
On Sunday, we watched the body being transported, by horse-drawn caisson, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda, where he would lie in state. People had waited hours and quietly streamed through the massive area. The efficiency of the planning and dignified ceremonies surrounding that day gave us comfort the important things were being done.
By early Sunday morning, I felt the need to go to church and try making sense of things. Why would God let this happen? We needed hope that our lives wouldn’t get worse. Our minister gave his sermon that morning, and I’m sure he had hundreds of hopeful words to utter. All I remember was the end:
“God knows and grieves each bird as it falls to the ground. We know He understands our loss now and weeps with us.”
I guess it was the best he could do. But it wasn’t over yet. A few minutes after I returned from church, we were glued to the television set again.
Oswald was shot as he was being transported to the county jail. He died two hours later in the same hospital where JFK died.
On Monday both Kennedy and Oswald were buried. One with pomp, grief, and ceremony; the other in haste and secrecy.
I watched the news that evening and saw Oswald’s coffin being carried to his grave in a Fort Worth cemetery. Several of my relatives were buried there. Beside Oswald’s grave was a set of steps with a metal handrail.
In 1966 I visited Kennedy’s grave. The eternal flame symbolized the light of hope and inspiration.
In 2010, I attended a relative’s funeral in Fort Worth. We gathered at the grave site, and I looked to the north. I saw a metal handrail beside a set of steps. As groups of my relatives visited, I walked toward those steps. I saw an age-worn, neglected marker with the name Oswald. No first name, year of birth or death. No eternal flame, and no inspiration. Just a bare, inconsequential, bleak burial site.
And no one would even notice it was there.