The class trouble maker, having earlier been sent from our classroom for another visit to the principal’s office, burst through the door to glibly announce, “Hey, somebody shot the President.” Even as our teacher moved to grab the class clown for another visit with the principal, in walked the principal pushing a television on a stand. That is how I always recall the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I was only a 12-year-old seventh grader, but that Friday, and the days that followed through the Monday funeral of our 35th President, remain seared in my memory. I watched in complete shock and amazement on Sunday as Jack Ruby stepped forward to shoot and kill accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, on live television. The next day, as John Kennedy, Jr., saluted his father’s funeral procession, even someone my age sensed the importance of the moment.
It was only one year before that I began to read, listen and watch the news carefully, trying to ask as many questions as possible of my parents. While visiting relatives in Lincoln, Nebraska, I watched the coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis alone with my father. Asking him what it all meant, he replied seriously that “it could mean war and something even worse.” As President Kennedy stared down the Russians when all around him wanted war, I could tell my father’s respect for the President grew with each news bulletin. Out of respect for my father, my respect for the President during those days took hold.
Back in our classroom, the stunned looks on the principal’s and teacher’s faces were shocking. They really did not know what to do next. Some girls in the classroom sobbed. Told to stop, they did, even though the school cooks serving our lunch did so in tears. There was one reason that struck me even then.
President Kennedy was our nation’s first Catholic President. This might seem ridiculous today, but my father was a Lutheran minister, and I attended a Lutheran grade school. There was a chasm between the two religions that in theological principle still exists. There also was also an open prejudice between Catholics and all Protestant sects at the time.
Stern old German Lutherans, forgetting the Golden Rule, often made jokes and slurs about Catholics just as Catholics took every opportunity to get their licks in on Lutherans, the initial leaders of the Protestant faith. Growing up with a Catholic grade school on our block I heard them all. Thanks to baseball games where everyone in the neighborhood played, whether Lutheran, Catholic, black or white, they soon seemed senseless.
Americans were living in an age of prosperity and comfort that masked any need to truly worry about the faith of our President. The Cold War, growing racial tensions and a brewing war in Southeast Asia seemed so far from Kansas in the early 60’s. As the Kennedy’s built their “Camelot” in Washington, the President’s popularity grew dramatically. Discussions in Kansas soon became more about the President’s good looks, the First Lady’s fashion, the President’s family and their athleticism as our country seemed to be in sure and steady hands.
My parents owned a copy of Von Meader’s top-selling comedy album, The First Family, on which impersonators hilariously panned the Kennedy family and presidency. The album won the 1963 Grammy for Best Album and sold 7.5 million copies at a record pace. That is until November 22, 1963. The album was taken off the shelves, unsold copies destroyed. Looking back now, albums were not the only thing destroyed. Change swirled so fast after that day that in just a few years everyone’s faith in our nation’s direction and honesty in leading the change rapidly eroded.
Conspiracy theories on the assassination flourished, the war in Vietnam grew, countless lives both here and in that regretful war were lost. President Kennedy’s charge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for you country” took on new meaning. It became paramount to question everything. Growing up in that tumultuous time, my sense of taking nothing at face value only grew and never has diminished.
There is not a doubt in my mind that a governmental conspiracy plotted and carried out the assassination of President Kennedy. I do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger on one of the multiple rifles used to shoot the President. He died being the “patsy” he always claimed. There is not a trip I make into Dallas proper that I do not walk to the spot in Dealey Plaza where an X on the street marks the spot where the fatal bullet killed a great President who easily would have been one of our very greatest. The possibilities that once seemed limitless sadly changed so suddenly.
Over the last 50 years, I often think of that day and our classroom trouble maker. His name is Paul. He remains one of the most gifted people I know. He was very smart, tremendously athletic and could sing with such a beauty, he evoked strong emotion from anyone listening. He was very small, though, and grew up in an abusive household. He carried not just a chip on his shoulder. He carried lumber. During eighth grade, Paul’s temper led to his dismissal from school, only adding to the troubles he carried through high school and eventually into the Army after being drafted.
Paul did not do well in Vietnam. His return from the war to Topeka led him to be treated at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital for a variety of emotional issues as well as other addictions. For years, despite efforts from many who knew him, Paul wandered the streets of Topeka pushing a shopping cart filled with his belongings. Often he and I would talk, but any effort was quickly rejected in fits of rage.
History reports that President Kennedy grew to adamantly detest the military’s involvement in Vietnam leading up to his trip to Dallas. The belief shared by many was that the President was battling his military leaders over his desire to end the war before it grew any further.
Soon after President Johnson took office on Air Force One in Dallas, the deployment of massive amounts of troops to Vietnam began in earnest. As the war escalated, Paul and others I knew joined in that deployment. I cannot help but wonder what Paul’s life might be like now, if only. Then as now, all I can do is pray and remember God’s will be done.