Not surprisingly, 50 years changes your perspective
Last weekend we went to see “Good Ol’ Freda” at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.
The movie was a documentary about Freda Kelly, a Liverpool girl who at age 17 lucked into becoming secretary for the Beatles.
For 10 years, she worked for the world’s most famous band and likely the four most famous people on earth.
Listening to the familiar tunes and watching images of the swooning teens, it was easy to recall the early ‘60s as a simpler time. Too easy. The early ‘60s were simple only in retrospect. At the time, they were anything but.
In 1961 we had the Bay of Pigs fiasco, followed in ’62 by the Cuban Missile Crisis – as close as we’ve come to nuclear war – and in ’63 by what was probably the biggest spot news story of the 20th century, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination, a fact I find remarkable for the mundane reason that I’ve reached a stage in life where I can recall events from a half-century ago.
Not that I can remember much about them. I was 6 years old and in no way precocious. I knew the president was dead, but it didn’t affect my world.
I was annoyed because the TV shows I usually watched were preempted for what seemed to be never-ending coverage of the assassination, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and finally the funeral.
I’m transfixed now watching old footage of those events, but in 1963 I was nothing but bored, particularly by the multiple replays of Oswald’s death. To this day, I question, following a national tragedy, the advice of TV experts who warn of children being traumatized. If adults act like adults I doubt many children are profoundly affected by tragedies that do not touch them directly.
My lack of interest was despite our family living just a few miles from some of that weekend’s most momentous events. My father was working as the administrative assistant – now called chief of staff – for U.S. Sen. J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware. Many of my schoolmates’ parents worked at Andrews AFB, where Air Force One landed after what must have been the strangest flight in American history.
The plane carried one live, newly sworn-in president, Lyndon Johnson, one dead president in his coffin, the new first lady, and the president’s widow, Jackie.
Last week I bought a reprint of The Dallas Morning News dated Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the assassination. It provides excellent, extensive coverage.
Most striking is a photo taken the evening of Nov. 22 at Andrews AFB. The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, had rushed there to meet Air Force One. In a scene captured by TV cameras, Kennedy bounded up the plane’s stairway, ignoring even the new president as he brushed past him to comfort his sister-in-law.
The picture captures a moment immediately afterward. Kennedy is clasping Jackie’s hand. He looks downcast, as does everyone else.
Except Jackie. She’s looking straight ahead, her expression offering no sign of inner turmoil, the only clue to the day’s events being her dress, clearly and horribly stained with the blood of the fallen president. She had refused to change her outfit, reportedly saying, “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”
In the photo, she looks ready to face whatever is coming, as if, mere hours after seeing her husband’s head blown apart, she had already assumed the role she would play in this real-life drama: griever-in-chief.
With no preparation, no training – how could there be? – she played her part to perfection, setting aside personal sorrow to offer a calm, dignified presence for a nation beset by loss. Fifty years out, I’m amazed by her example.
We did go into D.C. the day of the funeral. We did not see the rider-less horse or John Boy saluting as his father’s coffin passed by. We did see what appeared to be an endless line – reportedly 10 miles – of hundreds of thousands of people waiting to pay their respects. I was glad when my parents decided the line was too long for us to wait.
As tumultuous as our present days seem, in 2063 people will look back and recall them as simpler times. It’s good to remember: There’s no such thing. In November 1963, Beatlemania was at its height, and we were mourning the death of a young president.