Friday, November 22, 2013

FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY

Like every other American of a certain age, I have a story about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that occurred in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. In very many ways, it is the exact same story, no different than yours (if you have one). Yet, also like each and every one of the countless "I remember" stories that our generation has to tell, it is different.

I was a seven-year-old second grader on that fifty years ago Friday. The city of Austin was abuzz about the president's scheduled visit to our city. The plan was that when the Kennedy entourage left Dallas, they would journey to Austin for a parade down Congress Avenue followed by a big fundraiser dinner that night at Municipal Auditorium (now the Long Center). The appearance of the president in our city was such a big deal that the superintendent of the Austin school district, Irby Carruth, had declared that all AISD schools would be let out early that day to accommodate those of us who wished to go downtown and see the president.

School was let out and I was walking along the sidewalk in front of Brykerwoods Elementary school when a kid (and for the life of me, I cannot remember his name), came up to me and said that I shouldn't bother to go downtown to see the president because he'd been shot in Dallas. I had no idea what that could possibly mean, other than that I would not have a chance to see the president.

I walked home and found both my mother and father at home from their jobs (unusual for that time of day) along with my older brother and sister (who were in high school at the time). Every adult in our neighborhood was at home that afternoon and in every house on the street, families were doing what my family was doing: watching television for more information about this horrible tragedy.

I remember that a classmate of mine, a boy named Keith Walton, was scheduled to spend the night at our house that evening and we went ahead with our planned sleep over. Keith and I awoke early on Saturday morning, went into the den and turned on the television. We were going to do what all kids did on Saturday mornings back then: watch cartoons. But there were no cartoons that morning. There was nothing on television (Austin only had one television station at the time, KTBC, which was owned by Vice President (now, suddenly, President) Lyndon B. Johnson) that day except coverage of the Kennedy assassination.

After we took Keith home, my dad took me to Marshall's Hobby Shop on  the Drag (just north of the UT campus). We purchased the new Aurora plastic model kit of The Phantom of the Opera and spent the afternoon painting and building the model. It was more like a regular Saturday afternoon for me but for my dad I suspect it was a way to take his mind off of what was going on in our nation. Both of my parents were staunch, rock-ribbed Republicans who harbored no great love for either President Kennedy or, especially, Lyndon Johnson. But everyone, regardless of their political party affiliation was shocked and moved to tears by what had happened.

It was on that Sunday, after church, that one of my most indelible memories of that weekend occurred. We were gathered around the dining table in our den with the big, clunky black and white television turned in our direction so that we could watch the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald from the Dallas police department to the county jail. My father's friend Bill Kuhn was dining with us. While we ate and watched Bill suddenly shouted "that guy's got a gun!" And indeed, "that guy", Jack Ruby, did have a gun as we watched him murder Oswald live on television right there on a fine Sunday afternoon.

Years later when I was in high school, I had the opportunity to view for the first time, the famous Zapruder film of the assassination. Some guy whose name I don't recall had a copy of the film and he was making the rounds, showing the film to any group of people who wanted to see it. The screening was held after school one day at Austin High and I definitely wanted to see the film. I think there was a slight admission fee which I gladly paid. I have mixed feelings about seeing this bloody part of American history. It was truly vivid, graphic and disturbing to watch and it sure looked to me as if that fatal final shot came from the front. But I believed then and I still believe now that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as did Jack Ruby.

Finally, a few years later, when I was working as a television news reporter at KTVV (now KXAN) Channel 36, I was handed an odd assignment one weekend. It seems there was a man here in Austin who allegedly owned the funeral hearse that was used to take Lee Harvey Oswald to his final resting place. A photographer and I met the guy in Zilker Park and saw the vehicle for ourselves. We looked it over (and filmed it) from front bumper to rear door. The owner, if I recall, did not have any provenance to support his claim and he told us that he used the hearse to carry his gear on fishing trips. I have no idea of the whereabouts of that vehicle today but if his story was true, for a few brief moments, I was in contact with a tangible, physical object that was connected, however tangentially, to the Kennedy assassination. It was a macabre relic of both American history and eternity.




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