I was writing a Grade 11 English composition exam when the principal came on the PA to the entire school to tell us that JFK had just been killed.
We could hear the radio playing in the background — there was no television in the school back then, and the principal probably had the only radio.
And then we all went back to writing our exam — that’s the way schools handled sensitivity and traumatic incidents in 1963.
I remember thinking when I got home that I couldn’t ever recall every channel having the same story going on hour after hour, the Toronto and Hamilton channels as well as the three from Buffalo. Not even the early space launches had dominated TV that way. Ir was, of course, all over the afternoon edition of The Toronto Star that we had delivered.
It hadn’t really sunk in, so stunning was the assassination. By the end of the decade, it seemed that political assassination had become a horrifyingly common event, that every time someone emerged in which so many could place hope, that some deranged fanatic would pull a trigger.
But in 1963, the McKinley assassination was three generations ago. The unsuccessful letter bomb attacks on Truman were still a secret, and, amazingly, the deadly Washington gunfight in which Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill Truman were treated as an isolated incident of which most people my age weren’t even aware.
That evening 50 years ago today I walked downtown to watch guys from my high school play a Junior C hockey game against some other nearby town. There was a moment of silence. Life went on.
I didn’t see Lee Harvey Oswald get murdered on live televsion, I was in class when Kennedy was buried. I don’t recall that we even talked about it in school when we went back on the Monday — that just wasn’t done in 1963, no matter how extraordinary the events.
If you weren’t around back then, you have to realize that instant replay was still several years away — film was really film that had to be rushed to the lab and developed before live events could be re-shown. It was hours later that newspaper photos and TV film of events were generally available to the public. It was hours later that we first saw the horror in Dallas.
I think I was vaguely aware that Kennedy was far different than previous American presidents. I couldn’t have told you in 1963 anything that Eisenhower had done of significance during my childhood. Certainly, the glamour of Camelot dominated American TV news, but it was the glamour, the parties and fashion and celebrities, not the substance of politics, which dominated.
As far as authentic memories go, I have far more profound and sharper memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we’d sit in Mr. Beer’s science class and stare out at that ugly grey air raid siren tower next door behind the post office, wondering if there was a Soviet bomber on the way to drop a nuclear bomb on the nearby Avro plant, or the close-as-the-crow-flies hydro generating station at Niagara Falls.
I believe that many of my memories of Kennedy were formed after his death. By the end of the decade, I was in university and very aware of politics. The Vietnam war — the one we lived through, not the one that’s a product of revisionist history — was raging, begun by Eisenhower, nurtured by Kennedy, blown up into a full-scale war by Johnson after the alleged incident in the Tonkin Gulf.
I’m not sure exactly when we began hearing about Kennedy’s romantic affairs in the White House, about some of his other questionable relationships, the ones the White House press corps knew about but didn’t report. The conspiracy theories about who really killed Kennedy probably started the day he died, but I can’t pinpoint in retrospect the moment I became aware of them.
The lunacy of the Bay of Pigs invasion on which Kennedy signed off doesn’t get enough historical attention. Hands up any student who knows what the Bay of Pigs was --- in 1963, I couldn't have told you very many details, though I recall knowing vaguely that the prevailing wisdom was that it had been a good idea to invade Cuba, poorly handled.
Yes, I’ve since watched those epochal 1960 presidential debates, and I agree that if you just listen without watching, that Nixon won the debates.
The entire Kennedy family history is tragic. Bobby’s death was still five years away, followed the next year by Teddy’s abominable actions around the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, analysed on the impact on his political career rather than on the life lost...so many others in the 50 years since, Kennedy children and siblings and relatives. No other family has been such a part of American politics.
But in 1963, I didn’t know anything about father Joseph Kennedy’s very, very questionable activities in Europe in isolating the U.S. and appeasing the Nazis in the late 1930s.
Today, the family’s foibles and JFK’s personal peccadilloes would have been all over the mainstream media and the Internet the first moment he considered running for the senate.
I didn’t know any of that in 1963, when Ontario kids in Grade 11 weren’t encouraged to be reasoned thinkers.
I think I only had a vague feeling that with the end of Camelot, that something that might have been, was gone — but I can’t even say for sure if I was thinking that as I went to a Junior C hockey game the night of the assassination, or if it’s a memory I’ve since imposed on my Grade 11 self.