ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I was 6 when President John F. Kennedy was killed, the news crackling over my tiny transistor radio 50 years ago today.
In those first moments, I was alone to ponder the magnitude and meaning of such horror. I was home in Albuquerque sick from school with a cold. My grandmother was next door, my mother three blocks away picking up my younger siblings from the community center.
It was a time when mothers felt safe doing that. That feeling ended in those moments.
I knew who John F. Kennedy was, even then. My family was politically active, Democrat and Catholic, and the adults, particularly my mother and grandfather, adored him.
Kennedy’s portrait hung in our homes, as if he were a beloved, handsome relative. My grandmother counted among her extensive plate collection one that featured his movie star countenance circled by the less significant images of previous presidents.
I didn’t know Dallas. In my child’s mind, the world was as big as my neighborhood. News of a killer on the loose sent me diving deep under my covers, afraid that he was lurking outside the gate.
I crawled out in time to see our family station wagon pull up, my mother leap from the car and run toward my awaiting grandmother. They collapsed in each other’s arms, sobbing, as my siblings stared in bewilderment, still inside the car.
Thus began the days of sorrow and shock at our home and in those across the nation. We kept vigil in front of our television sets, watching black-and-white images of Jackie Kennedy, her hands full of her two small children just as my mother’s hands were full of us.
Both my mother and Jackie, I think, wanted us to understand the man we had lost.
Somewhere along the way, I learned about Dallas. I watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live television.
I learned we had cousins – Helen and Peter Heck – who lived in Dallas and had been standing along the motorcade route. In May 1964, Helen Heck wrote my parents a letter about how the city was healing. She enclosed a small black-and-white glossy photo of the Lincoln limousine taken close enough to capture the smiling faces of all four famous occupants: the Kennedys, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie.
The Kennedys, beautiful and perfect and young, stared straight into the camera lens, unaware these were their last lovely moments together.
That photo became one of my mother’s prized possessions, an exclusive memento of the man she adored and of a moment crystallized before innocence was lost.
She neatly immortalized the photo and letter in plastic wrap and taped them to the inside cover of “Four Days,” a coffee-table book of news photos and accounts from motorcade to funeral cortege.
The book was also wrapped in plastic.
After my mother died and then my father, my youngest sister became the guardian of the photo and had it framed. I hadn’t seen it in nearly 50 years, this sacrosanct and secret family heirloom.
Only it wasn’t that.
In attempting to figure out where on the motorcade route our photo had been taken, I spotted the same photo on the Internet. It was everywhere.
It was a shocking, confusing revelation.
I learned that it had been taken not by my cousin but by Victor Hugo King, a Dallas man, and was placed in the public domain by his son, according to the Library of Congress.
It had never been ours, never been what we thought it was.
I tracked down Helen Heck, whom I hadn’t spoken to since I was a child. She is 85, living in an Atlanta suburb, gracious and sharp as a tack.
She remembers everything about that day. But she couldn’t remember the photo she had mailed nearly 50 years ago. She had no idea my mother had cherished it so much.
“We were there that day, but we didn’t get a chance to take any pictures,” she said. “We were standing on a corner near the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was supposed to speak. By the time the motorcade drove past us, it was speeding and everybody inside was down.”
That the photo was not what we believed it was seems an appropriate metaphor for a moment in our history that, all these years later, we still don’t really understand.
We think we know what happened that day, and yet 50 years later we are split among the theories of the lone gunman, the secret of the grassy knoll or the cinematic supposition of Oliver Stone.
We think of Kennedy as virile and dashing, a man of dynasty and destiny who took us to the moon, to Camelot and a postwar wonderland. He is consistently ranked by the public as one of the greatest presidents, though he served but 1,036 days.
But he was a flawed man, a middling president, a womanizer. He wore a back brace and used crutches because of an ailing back and the Addison’s disease that nearly crippled him. He was talented and charismatic, sure, but without enough time to fill out the legend that had been created for him.
I doubt any of that would have mattered much to my mother. She saw him not as tarnished but golden, forever poised, like the country he led, for greatness.
She believed what she believed of him and that time long gone just as she believed the photo was a family keepsake. It was that, and then again, it wasn’t.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.