Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do you remember...?

Well of course I remember. I was eighteen, for God’s sake. Impressionable, emotional, in love with too many people to enumerate - including the President of the United States. John F. Kennedy was everything our politicians weren’t - think of the ancient Harold McMillan, his successor Alec Douglas-Home and before them Eden and the antique Churchill. Ok, the forty-something Harold Wilson had just won an election, but with his Gannex and his pipe and his portly waistcoat he was never an icon and seemed never to have been young. So yes, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard Kennedy had been shot, that strange dark November evening and the weekend that followed it.

It was a Friday, so whatever the dates fall on it will always be Friday in my memory. I was late home from school - orchestra practice ran till after 5pm on Friday evenings, and then we had to get a bus home - and my sister and I had our evening meal alone as our parents prepared to go out for the evening. Strange, that - they so rarely went out on the razzle. We had no television - my father thought, probably rightly, that we’d never do any homework again if we had one. It was our habit of a Friday evening to walk round to our grandmother’s house to spend the evening watching Russ Conway and other shows (our grandmother was strangely engaged by boxing matches) and eating cakes at suppertime. It was dark, of course, and the streets were quiet as we made the 10 minute walk.

I remember my aunt coming to the door and telling us the telly was off. Something had happened, and there would be no Russ Conway show that evening. Sure enough, there it was - the globe turning on its black background. There may have been music - that I don’t recall. Some time after our arrival, the news came on, accompanied by the by now familiar scratchy images of the motorcade, of Jackie Kennedy apparently trying to climb out of the car, of the agent leaping up behind her. Were they trying to hold hands? It was all very confusing and no-one was telling us more than we could see. The dislocation of time and weather - it was one of these made-for-tragedy sunny days in Texas - made it seem unreal, or at least removed in the way old war footage was.

I kept a daily diary in these days. Hell mend it, I still do. But when I looked it up the other day, I could see only the bald fact, recorded almost as an afterthought on a busy and self-absorbed Friday. (I know now, with hindsight, that I am incapable of recording the big life-events in anything other than the baldest of prose in my diary - the poetry comes later, when feeling becomes possible). “President Kennedy of the US was assassinated about 7pm our time in Dallas, Texas. He was shot through the head and died 3/4 hour later”. The next day’s diary records that I couldn’t stop thinking about it - “it’s terrible”. But then I went to see “From Russia with Love” and cheered up, apparently.

In a way, I was more reflective after the absurd - for it seemed absurd even then - shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. I think I perhaps saw that live on TV (another visit to Grandmother; she must have wondered what hit her). I recorded that there was speculation that Oswald had actually been shooting at “the other man in the car” (Governor John Connally) - haven’t heard that one since. By the time we reached Monday morning, I had worked myself into such a state of generalised angst that I felt like throwing up and didn’t go out to school until halfway through the morning - the images from the papers, Jackie Kennedy in what at that time I thought of as a grey skirt splattered in black blood, the knowledge that the funeral would follow later that day (why on earth was it so soon?) - all these had an impact that I wonder at now, when we expect movie-quality disasters on tap, immediately.

Looking back, I realise that the events of that day remained monochrome and censored for a long time. It was years later that we saw bits of the Zapruder tape, and later still that horrific moment when Kennedy’s head exploded in a pink cloud. The theories multiplied and became as much of the history as the event itself, and the world moved on and Bobby Kennedy was shot and Gerald Ford was shot at and so was Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul and the twin towers fell and I grew older and less impressionable. Maybe.  

But when they ask that question - Do you remember what you were doing when Kennedy was shot? - I can relive it in a flash. Oh yes. I remember.


  1. Oh, so do I. I was 17 and doing my homework with my younger sister at the dining-room table. "Get it done on Friday and then you have the weekend to yourselves" was my mother's refrain. She came in to say that the news had just been broadcast on TV and I too remember all programming being halted. The next day my sister and I went by bus to visit our elder sister and I vividly remember that the assassination was the main topic of conversation wherever we went.

  2. I, too, was at my granny's, as we were every Friday for our tea, and I recall the shocked response (though it was nothing to the appalling grief of another Friday when Aberfan was overwhelmed, my granny and my mother sobbing their hearts out). Even the bus going home was sadly silent and that says something for a Friday night in Falkirk.