This Friday we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I am not old enough to remember the how Nov. 22, 1963 unfolded, but I was there. It was one of those events, that although I was too little to comprehend it, shaped the place I was from and my sense of it.
My parents lived in an apartment on Hall Street, not far from Lemon Avenue. The president landed at Love Field, then the only airport serving Dallas. The motorcade rolled down Lemon making its way to downtown Dallas.
Because we lived so close to the route Kennedy would travel, mom’s friends came over. There was our friend Sheila, a daughter, Sharon, my age; Marilyn and her two girls, Hilary, 3, and Paula, also about my age. Another older friend who lived in the apartment complex showed up. They all made their way up to Lemon Avenue, where they stood in front of the A&P supermarket, anticipating the president’s driving by.
“What I remember most was how tan he was. I only found out recently from a documentary on PBS that the tan was from medication he was taking for his Addison’s disease. I could see Jackie, in that gorgeous pink suit, but she was on the far side of the car,” my mom recalls.
After the president passed by my mom and her friends went back to the apartment. She was feeding me lunch when she heard that the president had been shot. How could this man, who had looked so vibrant and alive less than an hour before, now be clinging to life, maybe dead already? She called my father, who was working at a local dress manufacturer at the time, and he came home.
There was a sense of unreality that accompanied the non-stop news coverage. Because it was Friday when the assassination took place, Temple Emanu El, our synagogue, was packed that night; everyone showed up for services, feeling loss and a need to be together at a time of national mourning. As my mom put it, “Everyone went. Where else would you go?”
Dallas had not been friendly to our president. A very conservative streak runs through the city and always has. The John Birch Society was thriving there at the time of Kennedy’s visit. Gen. Edwin A. Walker was a right wing firebrand based in the city and would remain so decades after. And prior to the Kennedy visit anti-Kennedy ads were placed in the Dallas Morning News and fliers were distributed around the city. Anti-Catholic and anti-Civil Rights sentiments ran high. Dallas was not a city that was exactly welcoming the winds of change.
“It was like today,” mom says. “It was just plain mean, the level of discourse” She remembers that a month before Kennedy’s visit, Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the United Nations, He was jeered, attacked by the crowd and hit with a sign.
The Big D I grew up in was conservative to the point of brittle. It took me a long time, as a child growing up in the Jewish community to realize how liberal even the most conservative among us were by comparison.
Despite all this, what my mother recalls most is the crowds, and that many people were proud the president was visiting. They turned out to see him and thronged the streets.
Recently President Barak Obama visited Dallas. He came to Temple Emanu El to speak about the Affordable Care Act. My mom says people were glad when he left, not because they disliked him, or disagreed with him. But so close to the Kennedy anniversary, they simply feared for him. I don’t think something like the Kennedy assassination was going to happen again, just because it was Dallas; but I sort of understand the sentiment. Why bring on the ayin hara?
I have visited the grassy knoll and stared at the sixth floor window of the school book depository building. I was long gone from Dallas before that floor was turned into a museum reckoning with the day’s events. The Zapruder film unreeled like gospel, made by someone we knew in the community. In Dallas, it never felt like you were very far from those events.
The stain of the Kennedy assassination was always there when I was a child. If I visited someplace out of state, it inevitably came up as soon as I said where I came from. Apart from Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, it was the one thing anyone knew about my hometown. When I went to Israel for the first time at 16, a good 14 years later, almost every Israeli I met asked about Kennedy’s murder. When I went to college in New York two years later, I was grateful for a Hollywood writer’s strike that left us with a cliffhanger for the show “Dallas.” It was a lot easier shrugging off “Who shot J.R,].” at mixers than “Who shot JFK.”
I remember seeing, as a child, the famous photo of John John Kennedy saluting his father’s coffin and asking my mom about it. At that point, I must have already known the basic details, because she didn’t need to give much back story. He was older than I was when it happened, maybe by a year, but that photo made the story real for me.
I was so young when this happened that the details have come to me initially from someone else. And yet because it is a collective memory, something devastating, shared by the entire country (if not the world), it has been woven into my narrative and become a piece of who I am. So it becomes like Pearl Harbor day for my parents’ generation, and 9/11 for my children’s, a touchstone that connects you to time and place with that simple question: “Where were you that day?”