Can you remember the morning of Friday, 22 November, 1963? And what were you doing?
Yes, it was 52 years ago today – 52 years since the assassination of President John F Kennedy.
I was 14 and had awoken early at about 5am and went outside to collect the milk – two pints in reusable glass bottles – but the milkman hadn’t arrived. I waited and after a few minutes he arrived looking very flustered and upset. Normally he just looked sweaty and tired for our house was at the end of his run which had begun at midnight.
“President Kennedy has been shot,” he blurted out. “I heard it on the truck radio. He’s dead. Yes, dead”. It almost seemed to me that he was blabbering this grim message to a kid – me – to convince himself that it was true.
He handed me our two bottles, grabbed the empty ones and turned and ran back to his truck. I stood there as if transfixed, a bottle clutched in each hand.
I knew that I had to tell mummy and daddy and I rushed inside. There was a strict rule that no children were allowed in their bedroom while they slept but I must have felt that on this occasion the rule could be broken.
“President Kennedy has been shot dead.” I almost yelled, repeating it several times until there was reluctant movement in the bed.
Finally my father’s dishevelled head appeared above the bedclothes. He appeared still stupefied by sleep and decidedly not all that pleased by being woken up. “What?” he said, “Who’s dead?”
I said even more loudly than before, “President Kennedy has been shot dead” and, to add substance to my statement, I added, “The milkman just told me”.
“Don’t be stupid boy. Go back to bed and put the milk in the fridge,” he said, and then rolled over and went back to sleep. It was only then I realised I was still holding the two pints.
I was glued to the TV news reports as the horrifying details were reported. It seemed to me utterly incomprehensible that the President of the United States of America – the leader of the free world – could be shot dead in his own country. I was vaguely aware that other US Presidents had been assassinated but could only remember Lincoln being shot but that had been a century ago – how could it happen again?
When my parents emerged from their bedroom they were strangely quiet; they could only shake their heads in utter disbelief and no words seemed adequate. Finally my mother switched off the TV, “We’ve heard enough of that,” she said with a grim finality.
At that time, the Lerner and Loewe musical, “Camelot” was running to rave reviews and packed houses and, subsequently, the Kennedy administration, begun in January, 1961, and ended with the President’s brutal death became known as “Camelot” – an acknowledgement that this youthful President brimming with charisma had represented a new era of hope and promise.
My parents were far more comfortable with Kennedy’s predecessor, the Republican Dwight D Eisenhower who had left office in 1961 aged 70. Eisenhower was the last US President to have been born in the 19th century and I’m sure they considered Kennedy, who was 46 when murdered, just a bit too “leftish”.
While at the time I had no doubt that Kennedy was a grown-up, if I ever thought about Eisenhower, who had begun his two Presidential terms in 1953 when I was 3, then I considered him to be impossibly ancient and boring.
Kennedy was handsome; his wife Jacky was glamorous. They exuded youthful optimism which my parents were uneasy about. After all, they grew up in an era when respected political leaders presented an avuncular and reassuring calmness.
The death of Kennedy, officially attributed to a lone crazed gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, has spawned any number of conspiracy theories still raging to this very day. The fact that Oswald was subsequently gunned down two days later in front of TV cameras by Jack Ruby, a seedy nightclub operator with links to the Mafia, only added to the conspiracy theories.
Kennedy and his wife were visiting Dallas, Texas and riding with them in the motorcade were State Governor John Connally – who was wounded in the attack – and his wife Nellie.
The large crowds were giving their president an enthusiastic welcome and Mrs Connally remarked to Kennedy, “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you” to which the president replied, “No, you certainly can’t”.
They were the last words from a leader who had memorably said in his inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.
Where were you when you heard about JFK’s assassination? What are your most vivid memories of that historic day?
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