Kennedy Assassination

I was in fifth grade in Arlington, Virginia. Our teacher had been called to the principal’s office. This seemed odd but not worrisome and I am certain that we expected her to return promptly because we did not take advantage of the lack of authority to wreak havoc. That may also have been attributable to the fact that we all worshiped our teacher. When Mrs. Armstrong returned she summoned a number of my classmates. These were students who had moved to Arlington from Texas because their fathers were close associates of vice president Johnson and came with him to work in the White House. There were a good number of children in the school like this. We were not told why Mrs. Armstrong took these children from the classroom. Sometime later Mrs. Armstrong returned and it was clear that she was not in her usual good humor. Things were different in the classroom. We were occupied with things that were not serious schoolwork – just busywork to keep us occupied for a while. Then, over the loudspeaker, the principal announced that school would be closing early. He announced that the President had been shot.

The students from Texas and anyone else related to the administration were sent home to protect them in the chance that they might be in danger. The principal had waited until these students were no longer at school before making his staggering announcement. We were sent home. We understood that Kennedy’s assassination was cataclysmic but not the global and timeless import of his death. We didn’t realize that these would be moments frozen in our memories, that the world would change, that perhaps powers might shift worldwide, that people all over the world would keep images of John Kennedy as cherished icons of youth, honor and goodness.

Two days later, my brother and I were watching the coverage of events when the transport of Lee Harvey Oswald was taking place. We were witnesses to his murder. We had never seen a fistfight, and our parents didn’t argue. We had certainly never seen anyone die. Witnessing Oswald’s murder was more staggering to us than the murder of the President. We had seen the films of the President’s murder, but we did not see it in the moment that it took place. It was already history, like the horrors of World War II, already one step removed from the immediacy of our lives. We had watched Bonanza, Ben Hur, Gunsmoke; people were shot, trampled, hung. Somehow, we were able to see those as pretend – playing cowboy. The murder of Oswald was the death of an actual human being and we were bludgeoned by the viewing of it. Adults always think that children don’t understand the value of life. But in that moment we knew. Children know perhaps more than adults the vulnerability losing a life presents. Oswald’s death did not present us with direct vulnerability but it presented us with the split second ease in which a life can end. That moment over time slid into a string of moments of vulnerability including the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kent State, the Viet Nam War and the draft which placed our brothers, friends and neighbors into that split second vulnerability.

President Kennedy’s assassination was more than a moment frozen in time. It was a series of moments that tumbled into other moments that left my generation acutely aware of the split second vulnerability of life.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT
copyright 2011

Kennedy Assassination Revisit

A Perfect Story Chip History Lesson

I found a perfect illustration for the existence of Story Chip, right in my own writing backyard. Several years ago I wrote the first piece on this page about my experiences on the day in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated – my own where were you when Kennedy was killed - one of those events one never forgets. We see them in our memories as video, crystal clear, no doubt as to the accuracy of those memories, etched in the stone of our gray matter.

In my recounting of this memory I knew to be wholly accurate, I wrote of being in school in Arlington, Virginia. The father of one of my classmates was a friend and colleague of then Vice President Johnson. I wrote of how this man’s son Lyndon, and others, were the first to be released from school that day in order to protect their families or to assist those in deeper grief than those not close friends or associates of the President. I knew this to be true, factual and beyond dispute.

After writing my memory of the assassination, I ran into the grown up Lyndon at my high school reunion and reviewed the events of that day with him. To my shock and the shock of my etched in stone gray matter, I learned from him, that he and his family had returned to Texas, in the summer of 1973, so that his father could get to work on the reelection campaign. Lyndon had not even been in Virginia at the time of the assassination and did not return until after the assassination. My memory had failed me! I had so clearly remembered this potent event incorrectly. Somehow, my brain had enhanced this 50 year old story and in recounting my memory, I was incorrectly reporting the facts.

This was startling, disturbing and thrilling. The startling and disturbing is pretty much self-evident. The thrilling part is that this fallibility of our memories forms the main argument for Story Chip. Many memories are required to accurately tell a story.

The seed of Story Chip was sown, oddly enough, also nearly 50 years ago, in history class. My beloved history teacher, Mrs. Anderson, gave each of us a handful of first-hand accounts of the battle of Lexington and Concord. Each one of these accounts was different. From reading these accounts, who fired the first shot was not clear. Just as my memory of where Lyndon was on the day of the assassination, the tellers of the tale of the first battle of the Revolutionary War, which was no doubt the where were you when moment of that era, were equally vulnerable to the foibles and vagaries of the mind and memories. However, with the handful of accounts given us by Mrs. Anderson, we were able to come to some understanding of the events of the day. Story Chip’s mission is to carry out on a global platform what Mrs. Anderson taught her fledgling historians nearly 50 years ago - that memories are fallible but with many memories put together, we can come to a reasonable view of the truth.

So, as you read stories on this site, help us to tell the truth of our world and its history. By adding your own memories you become an important part of the truth of the history of our world. In recording your stories, not only are you preserving your memories, you are also helping to flesh out our collective truth.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT © 2013

Another view

I was in middle school the day The Conspiracy Theory was born. My schedule had me going from a PE class to typing class, a nice two hour break from doing any real thinking. Linear time has always been a challenge for me and the excuse of having to shower and change before making my way to my next class was too much of a temptation, so I rarely got to typing class on time. The typing teacher would lock the door when the bell rang to make sure that students that arrived late would be turned loose in the hallways to cause whatever trouble was available. While this was another of those counterproductive acts of disciplinary control that would shape the way I managed a classroom, on that particular November afternoon I was actually a little disappointed that the door suddenly swung open and the disappointing prospect of displaying my two finger typing skills became very real (fifty years later, I still use the same “wrong” fingers to strike the keys on the lower rank of keys).

Not long after I found a lonely typewriter, the intercom activated and the very somber announcement of the shooting of the President was made. The first information was that he had been shot and was on the way to surgery. The first words had some hope for Kennedy's life. It did not take long for that hope to be replaced by the second announcement of his death and the process of Johnson taking the oath of office.

As shocking as the assassination of a President was, the memory that stays with me was the response to tragedy. Everything came to halt. Football games were immediately canceled. Stores closed. The entire Washington area seemingly cloistered themselves around their tv's (black and white, I really don't know when I first saw the Zapruder film in color) to watch what ever the networks managed to scrape together through that Friday night. Our planned adventure in teen beer exploration was brought to an abrupt halt when the city shut down.

The capture of Oswald brought the drama right into line with scripts of the detective shows of the day. Crime and punishment seemed to be on display in the way a society of laws should handle acts of extreme violence. In fact, just knowing that someone was in jail for the shooting seemed to take the steam out of the saga for me. I was moments from leaving the house to get fresh air and a badly needed change of mental environment when Oswald was being moved from one jail to another.

For a nation used to the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Leave it to Beaver”, seeing a man murdered was the irreversible end of the seal on Pandora's box. American broadcasting had to go back to the crash of the Hindenburg and Herb Morrison's unforgettable “Oh the humanity” as he watched flaming bodies falling from the airship's wreckage to find anything comparable to making every television viewer a witness to a murder. It also marked the beginning of violent television as the Vietnam war and the violent protests of the 60's made it difficult to watch the beaver after seeing the nightly news.

While I will always remember getting into typing class at the cost of a man's life, the violence directed at blacks, students, communists, Jews and political leaders overwhelms any sense of loss that I felt for President Kennedy. That was a horrible, violent time in our history and it is difficult for me to rank events in any order of calamity. When I first visited Dallas, I was surprised that the city had not made finding the site of the assassination easy for tourists. I have heard descriptions of the day from friends who were in grade school in that neighborhood when the shooting and man hunt occurred. The reaction in Dallas was not much different than in Northern Virginia and I can only imagine that Texans would rather not dwell on the violence any more than I do.

Twenty years later, I would learn perspective from my students. In the middle of discussing cultural milestones, I told a class that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. One student looked at me and quietly reminded me that when Kennedy was shot, they had not been born. All generations have the milestone that shape their contribution to culture. I will remember where I was as clearly as my children will remember where they were when the Challenger exploded. I will also remember that in the end, the innocence of Camelot was lost at the point of a gun.

Lee McGavin
Leander, Tx

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