West Words: As baby boomers die off, so will JFK memories

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Tens of thousands of words will be written over the next two weeks regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy Nov. 22, 1963.

I am among the 21 percent of Americans alive today who understood the importance of that event when it occurred. I was sitting in a high school “typing” class clackety-clacking away while thinking about basketball.

Our high school hoops season was to open that night at Faribault. I was a junior and had won a starting spot. That was the depth of my thinking.

Then, in the middle of class, the high school principal came on the intercom and announced that the president of the United States had been shot. He had no other news, such as if the president were alive or not, so after a couple of minutes, classes resumed.

Twenty minutes later, the principal came back on the intercom and announced that the president of the United States was dead. In the back of the room, a girl gasped, jumped up and ran out of the class. I have no idea where she went, but my guess was that she broke down sobbing in tears somewhere in the hallway. The rest of us sat stunned, while the principal put a network radio feed on the intercom. The facts, as they always do in breaking news stories, came in slowly.

For the remainder of the day, we moved to our assigned classes on schedule, but all we did was listen to the news report. The bus to the game left at 5, and we arrived in Faribault around 5:30 p.m. We walked into the school, and, as always, we could smell the popcorn down at the concession stand. However, it was still early, and no one was in the lobby other than ourselves, not even the ticket takers.

We were just headed down the stairs to the locker room, when the Faribault athletic director stopped us. I was standing right behind our coach, when the athletic director said, “If we play tonight, we may be the only two high schools in Minnesota that will.”

He was wrong. About 15 games were still played that night statewide, but our game was postponed then and there. The only good thing that happened was that we all received free popcorn at the concession stand.

Back home, we went to a restaurant for supper. A TV played over the counter, and it showed Jackie Kennedy getting off Air Force One, her suit still smeared with her husband’s blood.

By then, Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested in Dallas.

Two days later, I went to church, and when I walked back into the house afterward, my mother’s first words were, “They just shot Oswald.”

Not “somebody,” but “they.”

And so began the debate on whether Oswald acted alone. Twenty-five years ago, I read some of the conspiracy theories. It was Castro, or the mob, or Vice President Lyndon Johnson, some people said.

The conspiracy theorists make some good points regarding circumstantial evidence. However, my own conclusion was to believe the Warren Commission, which actually did the investigation.

I came to accept what we don’t want to admit to be true: That one lunatic with a half-baked plan was able to change the course of world history. The chances of the top being off the presidential limo, of Oswald smuggling a rifle unnoticed into the Texas School Book Depository Building where he worked, of the parade going by that building were infinitesimally small. But then to get off three shots through tree branches, and having one of them blow the president’s head off is a script that Hollywood would have rejected as too far-fetched. But it happened.

As I look back, I think of Nov. 21, 1963, the day before, as the last day that America was truly united. I know that seems naive. The civil rights movement was nearing its fruition to achieve equal treatment of blacks, and that was contentious, but up to Nov. 22, 1963, America was a lot simpler place than it is today.

Most Americans believed in the goodness of their government, and for most kids “government” began with two parents, then the school and then the law, all in concert working to keep us in line.

Within two years, Vietnam, drugs and race riots, coupled with changing social mores and federal welfare programs that encouraged out-of-wedlock births, turned what seemed like a well-ordered society upside down. We’ve been arguing about what to do about it ever since.

For us baby boomers, Kennedy was the most glamorous president we ever had. The viciousness of today’s politics far exceeds that of the Eisenhower-Kennedy years..

Kennedy was witty, urbane, and he and his wife were truly like movie stars. I say this now only because those who actually remember his presidency are dwindling. When we are gone, I think Kennedy, unlike Abraham Lincoln, will join William McKinley and James Garfield, our other assassinated presidents, as mere footnotes in history. He simply didn’t have time to leave a more permanent mark. I think one had to have been at least 8 or 10 years old on Nov. 22, 1963, to understand the depth of the loss the nation experienced that day.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or email [email protected]