Bob was a neighborhood friend of mine, but a year younger. And we weren’t best buddies; we just played sandlot baseball together. He had been known to stretch the truth a bit in order to see if somebody would take the bait in a prank. So I wasn’t quite sure whether to believe him.
Then I saw some of the girls in his class crying. And the teacher was really upset. Apparently, the principal had made a general announcement to every room but the auditorium that Friday afternoon. In the Eastern Time Zone, it was around 2:00 p.m. I remember its being sunny and chilly when all “walkers” were dismissed a little early and told to head home.
Mom had the TV on when I arrived. Big boxy RCA Victor. Black and white, of course. I think there was only one color TV in my suburban Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood at that time. We had a choice of three channels: ABC, NBC or CBS. Even though Dad was a Huntley-Brinkley fan, Mom had Walter Cronkite on. I recall changing channels every once in a while for the next three days, but I think CBS was the first to report the news, so we stuck with it most of the time.
I already had an interest in politics and history at that young age, so I was glued to the tube. TV reporting was still in its infancy. But it matured considerably that day and the rest of the weekend. Cameramen shot on film for the most part, and had to get it developed before broadcasting. The events of Dallas helped change all that. For the first time, we were there live watching a young widow, a stunned populace and world leaders share their collective shock and grief.
Seeking some semblance of normalcy, my family went to a scheduled pancake dinner at church that Friday evening. We were not alone. It seemed everyone was seeking companionship and trying to make sense out of senseless tragedy. All-you-can-eat flapjacks and Mrs. Cox’s unbelievably delicious chocolate cake provided ample comfort food.
It was a subdued affair that night, to say the least. Many families, mine included, went into the sanctuary for a brief service. A lot of the conversation was about Jackie Kennedy, Caroline and John, but there were also many questions. Who was the assassin? Was it a conspiracy by the Russians? And there was much speculation about Lyndon Johnson. The Kennedy Administration kept LBJ out of sight as vice president, so not a great deal was known about what kind of president he would be.
When my dad called my Grandma Lewis that evening, she said she remembered President McKinley’s being shot in 1901. Not even radio was around to record that time in history. Coverage of the fourth assassinated U.S. president was unprecedented.
In addition to the TV news, I can definitely recall seeing the huge black-lettered headlines in the Dayton Daily News afternoon edition. “PRESIDENT KENNEDY ASSASSINATED IN TEXAS; JOHNSON TAKES OVER.” That was pretty fast coverage when you consider the news had only been reported a couple of hours before.
But it was the TV images that captured most of our waking moments. I didn’t need any prompting, but my mom and dad kept telling me to watch as much as I could since they knew this to be a defining moment in U.S. history and probably the Pearl Harbor-type event of my generation.
They were right. If there was an age of innocence in America, it was over that afternoon. Or if not then, at least the following Sunday when the country witnessed the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. Civil rights, Vietnam, more assassinations and distrust of presidents completed the decade of the ’60s. In the half century since those shots rang out in Dallas, it’s sad to say that the lack of trust in our leadership that those events engendered hasn’t exactly gotten any better today.
If you observed history that fateful weekend and you’ve never been to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, I recommend you plan a trip. First of all, it’s a lot smaller than it seems. And now you can visit the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository Museum and see what the assassin saw. It’s both a fascinating and almost fear-inducing sight. A moment frozen in time unlike any other.
Bill Lewis is a freelance writer in Marietta.