When you undergo a traumatic experience, especially at a young age, you remember details of that experience for the rest of your life.
And so it was for so many on the day of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on that fateful Friday – November 22, 1963.
I was an eighth grader at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania.
The day before, we had discussed in our current events club about how JFK and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s recently resigned prime minister, had a vociferous argument over Israel’s nuclear weapons program, just six weeks after JFK pushed through the nuclear test ban treaty – for the entire world to sign.
JFK didn’t want Israel – or anyone else – to produce nuclear weapons.
Ben-Gurion shot back that Israel’s adversaries wanted genocide – that this was the lesson that the Jews had learned from the Nazis, that this was why the Jews needed nukes (the dialogue is well documented in Avner Cohen’s book Israel And The Bomb, Columbia University Press, 1998
As I walked out of school to catch the bus home that Friday afternoon, a seventh grader down the steps, yelling out the news that the president had been shot dead in Dallas.
First thoughts hit me were that JFK was such a young guy, like a nice uncle who always had new ideas. My mind was racing, and I quickly wrote down my thoughts when I got on the bus to go home.
How would we remember JFK? I remembered listening to him in sixth grade at his inauguration – “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He had one message: to get involved. Join the Peace Corps. Fight for civil rights. Help Poor Nations Abroad, and act in accordance with “Profiles in Courage”: Be proud to stand for the principles of your country, no matter what.
Getting on the bus at City Line Avenue, people of all ages were sobbing. A black man getting on the bus said to the driver, “Do you know what he did for us?”
The editor of the school paper, known as the Gateway, was also on that bus.
I told her that my dad was commuting these days to Washington DC, as an engineer working on central air conditioning at the big post office in DC. Saying that I could join him there, I asked if I could cover the JFK funeral for the school paper. She said “sure” and I got my first press assignment..
My thoughts on the bus which I wrote down at the time were that we “must do something to help our country” to remember our fallen president. As I sauntered down the sidewalk on Malvern Avenue in Overbrook Park, my Mom was standing outside, her hands folded. She asked me what I thought. My eight-year-old brother, Neal, standing beside her, shrugged his shoulders and said that “hey, we have an old man again,” meaning Lyndon Johnson.
And there was The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin delivered on our door step an hour before, spread out on the couch, with the headline “Kennedy shot in Dallas street,” superimposed over the sub headline: “Nixon, in Dallas, says that Kennedy will drop Johnson in 1964.”
Sitting in the living room for hours, we watched a shaken Walter Cronkite describe everything that he could about JFK and then about the ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald. The weekly satire show “That Was The Week That Was”, hosted by David Frost, led with a melody that was written on the spot by the usually hilarious staff, now somber and serious. Nancy Ames sang the lyrics:
“A young man rode with his head held high, under the Texas sun, And no one guessed, That a man so blessed, would perish by the gun, Lord, would perish by the gun. A shot rang out like a southern shout. And Heaven held its breath. For a man shot down, In a Southern town, In the summer of his years, Yes, the summer of his years”.
As I psyched myself up that Sunday to cover the funeral the following day in Washington – where my friend Gary and I would accompany my dad at what was then called Pennsylvania Railroad Station at 30th Street – I was glued to the TV screen, to learn anything and everything that could be learned about the assassination and the assassin.
Clips from JFK’s short life were flashed across the screen – his press conferences, his defiant declaration of freedom at the Berlin Wall and his rollicking about with Caroline and John John.
Cronkite then showed a film of Oswald giving out fliers for the “Fair Play For Cuba Committee” in New Orleans.
And here was my first inquisitive wonder: How did CBS get that footage of Oswald so quickly? In an era before our advanced age of communications and internet, how was this possible that they got such a film? Did that mean that the FBI knew who Oswald was, I asked my Mom.
And then a moment on live TV occurred that may never happen again: The news cut to the basement of the Dallas police station, where Oswald was being arraigned and we watched Oswald’s assassination on live television. What an unbelievable moment in US television history.
The next morning in DC, we took the train from Philly to DC, and walked from Union Station to the Washington Post Office. We saw world leaders walk out of the White House, where they paid their respects to the late president. I stood in awe as we identified Charles de Gaulle of France, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Golda Meir of Israel, Willy Brandt of West Germany, Olof Palme of Sweden and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia as they walked in a solemn procession by us. All walked slowly, somberly, seemingly without any protection whatsoever. And a Scottish band played a solemn version of “Hail to the Chief,” a quiet crowd looked on.
Yes, this was a memorial to JFK, yet it was also a salute to America 18 years after World War II, after US had played a pivotal role in saving the world from the Nazi and fascist threat. The procession was also a thank-you to America for its stand in the Cold War, which 13 months earlier had almost boiled over.
The US secret service took no chances with American public officials. They all drove in vans, with guards on each side. We got a glimpse of President Johnson as he drove by, and my father took a snapshot of the car. The policeman standing in front of us went to pieces when the casket of JFK went by, with the lonely unmounted horse leading the way. This was the first time that I had ever seen a grown man cry, let alone a cop.
After everyone went by, my dad went to work at the post office, and Gary and I strolled through the crowd back to Union Station.
On the Pennsylvania Railroad, an older lady (she might have been 40, but I remember her as “old”) asked us what we thought of the recent assassinations. My response was that while I thought that killing Huey Long was a good idea, but that killing JFK was a bad idea.
I then started asking questions of my own. Five or six people got into the conversation, and no one had answers to my simple questions, like, “How could it be that a marine runs away to Russia in the middle of the Cold War, gets married, comes back, is not arrested, works for Cuba, kills the president and then gets killed two days later at the police station, no less ?” And “what was Nixon doing in Dallas on the day of the assassination?”
I kept asking these run-on questions, and America will keep asking that run-on question until all official documents of the JFK assassination are released.
Over the years, we had understood that the JFK secret documents would be released after fifty years. I guess that this is not going to happen.
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About the Author: David Bedein is Bureau Chief of Israel Resource News Agency, presenting news items and analyses not often seen in your standard mainstream electronic or print media, even if you live in the Middle East.
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