I was 14, in my last year at Court Junior High in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For one period of the day, I was an “office girl,” a dubious privilege which entailed running errands for the Principal’s secretary. The assignment got me out of P.E. (hooray!), and I enjoyed roaming the halls of Court Junior High when everyone else was in class. I snatched the pink attendance slips from the clips outside each classroom door and delivered them to the Principal’s secretary, who tallied student absentees. But aside from the freedom to roam, an office girl’s one-hour shift was boring.
Until Friday, November 22nd. It was sometime after 11:00 a.m. I don’t remember my principal, but I do remember phones ringing and his radio suddenly coming on. The secretary told me, “the President’s been shot.”
The President. Our handsome, wisecracking, good-guy President. My parents admired Kennedy and I was so excited when he was elected. At last, I thought, we’ll have somebody cool in the White House. How could a kid relate to bald, old Eisenhower? JFK had a beautiful wife that reminded me of my mom. His little kids were cute like my little sister and brothers.
I’m ashamed to admit that when I heard he was shot, the part of me that’s hungry for new experience wondered what would happen if he died. Instead of saying a little prayer for him to survive the shooting, I wondered what it would be like to experience a President’s funeral. I remembered reading about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege. I also wondered, selfishly, if school would be cancelled, hopefully for, like, a month?
Despite the horrible news about JFK, the principal’s secretary sent me on my rounds to collect attendance slips. I went to the gym where a group of girls clustered on bleachers. This was the P.E. class that I’d gotten out by virtue of being an office girl. The class was a mix of Anglos and Mexicans. Some of them were pretty intimidating. One Anglo girl in particular. I’ll just call her ‘Z.’
Z had big boobs, and big hair ratted into a brunette bubble above her head. She hung out with an equally sarcastic pal and the two of them would make rude commentary on anyone and everyone. I’m sure she thought of me as a nervous nerd, and I steered clear so I wouldn’t be the butt of her cruel jokes.
I ran into the auditorium, breathless with the news about President Kennedy. I told them, though maybe they already knew – I’m foggy on the details. What I do remember vividly is how Z laughed out loud when she heard the President was shot. I was shocked, and I walked out of that gym feeling shaken. In my naivete, I thought everyone loved the President.
JFK died minutes later. That afternoon, I had a dentist appointment that my mother wouldn’t let me cancel. The dentist was the father of my sister’s good friend. I was sitting in his fancy chair, waiting for him to come in and work on my teeth, when I overheard him tell someone, “I’m glad the sonofabitch is dead.” I was sure he meant Kennedy. I’d never had to think about my dentist’s politics before. He came in and while he examined my mouth for cavities, I was scared he’d find out I was a Democrat and he’d use one of those sharp, ugly picks to poke at my tender gums. Or drill needlessly into a perfectly healthy tooth. After the ordeal, I hurried home and told my mom about him. We never let him look at our teeth again!
I felt guilty that my “what if” question was answered – I got to experience a President’s funeral. I wanted him back immediately. I wanted to rewind that day, change his itinerary, keep him away from Dallas. My family huddled around the T.V. with its grainy, black-and-white coverage of his death. He was our loss and the T.V. let us share that loss with countless others who felt the same way. The weekend was an unfolding origami of grimness, one unbelievable event followed by another. JFK gone; Oswald gone; plump Jack Ruby in jail; and jowly LBJ (a Texan!) sworn in.
I never believed Oswald acted alone, though I’m not much for conspiracy theories. I can understand how such theories give comfort to those who want to organize chaos. But conspiracy theories require a suspension of disbelief for explanations that are as unbelievable as those crazy events on the weekend of November 22nd, 1963.
Of course Oswald didn’t act alone, but to me it no longer matters to find out who specifically funded his sniper attack. Whether directed by others or acting solo, Oswald rose up from an inchoate groundswell of rage against democracy. He was the jerky trigger finger of a powerful hatred. “They” lost the election and got even the only way “they” knew how. Whether “they” were anti-Castro, anti-Civil Rights, or pro-Mafia, “they” have been around forever, in all ages, all countries. They’re with us now. “They” mutate into different organizations, causes, and methods for extinguishing the enemy. But their fundamental rage and intolerance is the same.
I’ve been reading excerpts from The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by political scientist and analyst Larry Sabato. He details the different forces behind Kennedy’s powerful enemies. Sabato believes it was “almost unlikely” that JFK would make it out of his presidency alive. The political climate was toxic to his life; Kennedy himself had a “false sense of invulnerability;” and the security forces protecting him were undermanned, by today’s standards.
Back on that November Friday, 1963, I was naïve about all of this. And maybe most of us were, regardless of our age.