Mack Williams column: Where I was and what I was doing
No, this title doesn’t refer to a question that will, hopefully, never be put to me by some future district attorney. I’m just a little late in writing about where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. Just as in the “living histories,” everyone who was alive, and of an age capable of memory then, should write down what was going on in their lives at that particular moment. A book of such recollections, in addition to providing commentary on the assassination, would be a cross-cultural insight into the life and times of the early 1960s.
Years ago, when I was a social worker at the Caswell County Department of Social Services, the state had something in the nature of a “minute monitoring,” in which the director would stop in our individual offices and inquire of us as to what we were doing right then. Unlike him, I’m not asking you to write down your Kennedy assassination memories right now, but just saying you should write them down sometime.
The 50th anniversary of the tragedy almost slipped my mind. If it hadn’t been for a same-day, early morning, reminding mention of it on TV. I don’t say that callously; It’s just that I temporarily forgot about it while there were a bunch of children visiting the natural history museum where I work, so any occurring thoughts of that past death, or of others dearer, were temporarily replaced by thoughts of the present. (It might sound like some strange sort of conjugating, but even though the past is not perfect, there is always some hope for a “future-present.”)
After the kids were gone, leaving only the taxidermied animals, live reptiles, rocks, fossils and me (some redundancy in the last two), I started writing this column about “where I was and what I was doing” on Nov. 22, 1963 at the age of 12.
The veterans of that “greatest generation” who fought tyranny in World War II will at some point be gone from us, as will someday the “Kennedy assassination rememberers,” also identified by a certain amount of gray hair (or lack of hair), and lines in the facial skin.
When our Granite Quarry School principal, Mr. C.L. Barnhardt, put Walter Cronkite’s CBS radio broadcast over the intercom, I was in Mrs. Angell’s fifth-grade class. People nowadays are fond of using the phrase “do the math,” so in a paraphrase, if you “do do that math, that some do so well,” based on my above-stated age in 1963, you will wrongly assume that I flunked one of my classes somewhere along the way.
I was only a visitor in Mrs. Angell’s fifth-grade class that day, along with several other fellow classmates. We came from Mrs. Roselyn Misenheimer’s sixth-grade class, where all the sixth-grade band members were assigned.
The sousaphone was my instrument, and I had just finished playing “Lil’ Liza Jane” from my beginner sousaphone book when Walter Cronkite came over the intercom (via Mr. Barnhardt). There was a report of sisters leaving Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, along with a mention of last rites, then Walter Cronkite chokingly informed us of the president’s official time of death.
School immediately closed and we filed into the busses. On the way out of the parking lot, I recall one student saying that war might be a possible result of what had happened. The pain experienced in the pit of my stomach during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous year, was back.
All existing television programming was pre-empted by the continuos coverage of events in Dallas and Washington, which we watched continually on our black-and-white TV set. Today, when I mentally recall the scene of our family sitting there, I sometimes see the living room and us in black-and-white too.
I also witnessed, by way of television, as did millions of others, the shooting of lee Harvey Oswald. My feeling of gladness at seeing him shot was probably due to a “group memory” of the quick justice of the American West.
Getting back to that early morning, 50-year, Kennedy assassination television reminder. The simplest of calendars only note the days, dates of solstices, dates of equinoxes, moon phases, and holy festivals. The media reminds us of certain days which recall public tragedy, because they know, like we (for they are “we” as well) that we are all, essentially, creatures of habit and memorialization. The anniversaries of the “leaving” days of our loved ones and friends, though not on the printed calendar, are always in our hearts. If notation concerning all of their death dates were to magically appear on our kitchen calendars, those striking, black numbers of the days would suddenly be lost in the background.
Returning to a previous thought about the busy activities of the present covering over some sad times of the past, I would like to add that it doesn’t really matter that I’m just a little late in my “assassination recollection” of JFK. I say that because I sometimes think about that death in Dallas on other days which don’t belong to the fall of the year, or are not bright and sunny, as that one was.
I don’t think of that day on any regular basis, but only do so when something occurs that might serve as a reminder of it. I cannot continually think about Nov. 22, Sept. 11, or the multiple death dates of dear ones and friends. To constantly have those days in the forefront of my mind would lead to “destabilization,” and by that I’m not referring to the physical weakening of a building’s foundation, but instead its spiritual equivalent.