The 22nd, and it becomes inescapable: the Kennedy assassination, 50 years ago. A before and after, where-were-you event.
I was a very young boy. In fact, the assassination may be my earliest conscious memory. There’s a fine way to start off a life: televised murder and national grieving before you know what death is. And people wonder why my work has a dark sensibility.
Here’s how the political becomes personal.
At the time, my dad worked for the Spokane Chronicle. The news came over the TV or radio in the cafe where he ate his lunch, and, when the shock subsided, my father turned to the waitress and, in his droll way, asked: “Can I get that to go?”
I didn’t see him for the next three days. The newspaper staff basically lived at the office, publishing nonstop updates. I still recall the anxiety and confusion I felt. Adults—men and women—spontaneously, inexplicably weeping for reasons I couldn’t understand. This great man, dead. And, to my mind, my father missing.
I do have one weird, vivid memory from that time. Waking up early, while the rest of the household slept, and wandering out to the living room. Turning on the TV. Black and white, hearses moving slowly past blurred faces lining the street. And, for some reason, I put my hands flat against the screen, as though I might receive some kind of physical transmission. I don’t remember ever having done that, before or since. The screen seemed to sizzle.
It all gets muddled, of course. Did I see Cronkite announce the president’s death? It seems like I did, but I’ve seen the clip so many times since then, Cronkite removing his glasses and choking up, that I can’t separate the real-time event from subsequent footage.
It was frightening, of course, even though I surely couldn’t understand what was going on. I remember fear. And I remember trying not to show it because everyone was already upset. The event t became a touchstone for years of “oh no” moments. Bobby. MLK. Chicago. “This is a CBS/NBC/ABC news bulletin….”
Years later, I’d have my own chance, as a radio reporter, to become The Voice. I’m sure I announced a few deaths, but the only even I really remember was announcing we’d invaded Grenada. Grenada? Where? Isn’t that a soft drink? I suppose it had its weight, so close to Cuba. I ripped the story off the teletype, just like in the movies. I can’t tell you how somber…and marvelous…that felt. That sort of thing makes you a news junkie.
The killing marked another cultural change, one that took a while to settle in. Those various shoot-em-up films from the Fifties? Where a character gets shot, clutches, and slides to the floor, perhaps a thin, discreet trickle of blood showing? No more. Not after the president’s head explodes. “The pink mist” as the soldiers say. Coupled with the nightly televised carnage of the Vietnam War, a visceral reaction against the true horror of violence led to its hyperrealistic portrayal on film. “Bonnie and Clyde” probably set the tipping point, but a whole generation of filmmakers expressed their fury with fountains of blood, as if to scream: look at it, look at it, look at it!
Understandable, but now moviegoers watch gory torture flicks for entertainment, and mutilated bodies show up on network television, and every other week, it seems, someone with a gun flips into overload and goes full medieval on total strangers. So I’m not certain the aesthetic choice achieved the desired effect.
When the light faded from JFK’s eyes, it’s said a certain innocence went with it—an optimism and, as he would say, vigor. But it could also be said that a veil ripped away, and we saw a truer portrait America: violent, dark, paranoid, and vengeful.
The two, paradoxically, co-exist. And perhaps it’s ironic that a man who’d known his own share of loss and violence, war and illness, would unwittingly pass on a profound lesson. JFK turned out to be one World War II veteran who told his whole story.
- JFK’s Most Iconic Moments (nation.time.com)