Friday 22 November 2013

How I heard the news........

Most of those who read this blog would not yet have been born on this day - and of those who were, very few will have been old enough to remember it. So here is a little indication of how it felt to this writer.

Fifty years ago today (also a Friday) I was 17. I'd left school that Summer and was two months into my first job as trainee accountant, at that stage a mere errand-running dogsbody.

On the actual day I'd have been home about one hour, had had my dinner and, at around around 6.45 p.m., was watching TV alone, my mother being in the back living room with my grandmother.
At that time there were only two TV channels, BBC and ITV (the commercial station).
I'd have watched the national news (nothing of note that day) and was probably then watching the succeeding local news, with diminished attention.
Then the sound of my mum hurriedly coming up the hallway, calling out to me - "President Kennedy's been shot!" (She'd had the radio on in the other room. There'd been no announcement yet on TV, which was carrying on normally.) My blood froze. I can still feel it. I can't recall what I said but it was probably something like "How is he?" and she would have replied "They haven't said yet."
I felt paralysed, willing the TV to say something, - anything!  - while I was switching between the two channels.
It would have been just a couple of minutes later when, mid-programme, an announcer appeared telling us what my mum had said. He'd been shot but had survived and was being rushed to hospital.
At that time I and my whole family were devoutly religious, and I may well have got down on my knees to pray that he'd be okay.

It was a very big deal for us Catholics that JFK, being the first and so far only R.C. President, should be seen to be as successful and popular - and in our eyes up to then he had been  - while also being such a perfect family man! In fact he was head of a model, good, Catholic family. We always felt particularly proud whenever his name was mentioned, though we were also aware of his increasingly vociferous critics, which I dismissed as coming from 'sour grape Protestants'.
It hardly needs repeating here, it being so often documented, that at that time we hadn't the slightest clue about the realities of his private life, nor of the truth of his lifelong difficult medical condition. He was a hero for so many of us, the closest to a Superman that we had ever seen. He was all set to become a truly outstanding President.

Meanwhile on TV the announcer said that we'd be kept informed if there were any developments in the story, and the interrupted programmes returned. Of course my mind couldn't take in anything else on TV. I kept switching channels until - maybe something like 45 mins later, an announcer re-appeared to repeat the news when the telephone beside him rang. He picked it up....."Yes......yes......okay."  He replaced the receiver and, to the camera, "We regret to inform you that President Kennedy has died." Nothing else. The screen faded to dark. It was a hammer blow even though there was an inevitability about it.  (I was wondering why he seemed to be smiling as he made the announcement. But on reflection I don't seriously think it was a smile - more a 'pained expression', which under the pressure of the moment might have been capable of being misinterpreted.)
It was ITV who had beaten the BBC to the announcement. I switched to BBC and a good 5 minutes or more later their own regular news-reader appeared, grim-visaged, to tell us what we had already just heard.

The BBC showed their daytime test card over silence - then, all of a sudden, music, which I recognised as the opening movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite Number 3 in D, an unfortunately-chosen, gloriously jubilant sound, complete with celebratory trumpets and triumphant drums (very likely the first track on a classical music record which they happened to have on hand). ITV, after a similar few minutes silence, showed a recording of a classical concert, Sir John Barbirolli conducting Brahms' Variations on the St Anthony Chorale', a slightly less insensitive choice.
What happened then on BBC I thought was little short of a scandal. After maybe half an hour of classical music as a background to the static test-card, they returned to its normal programming schedule - and actually screened, unbelievably, two situation comedies, back to back - Harry Worth (a big-name English comedian of the time) and 'The Rag Trade' (with Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock), both pre-recorded with canned laughter.
I thought at the time that that was unforgivable. There was strident criticism in the papers the following day, pointing out that even Soviet Radio and TV had cancelled all their programmes in order to play solemn music for the remainder of the night.
We were later to learn that on this fateful day all the BBC big-wigs happened to be away together attending a conference on the other side of the world and had been unreachable. There'd been no one left behind in London to make a high-level decision as to what to do. I believe that because of what happened there are now contingency plans always in place to ensure that no such fiasco ever recurs.

The ensuing days are less clear to me. Masses for Kennedy's soul were being held all over the country and I attended one at my local parish church.
I remember feeling that the funeral seemed to be taking place with immoderate haste, and looked somewhat disorganised. All the major world leaders were there but I searched in vain for even just a glimpse of our then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who did actually attend but was nowhere to be seen on film. It was French President Charles De Gaulle who was pre-eminently conspicuous.

Then it was over. Johnson had been sworn in as President within minutes of Kennedy's death being announced. Shortly afterwards Oswald himself was shot. Life tried to return to something like it was before even though there was a chunk of it missing. I carried around for some time a heavy feeling of the injustice of it all. Why did God allow it to happen? (Good question!)

During the passing of the last five decades revelations have come out about the personal lives of the Kennedys which we never dreamt could be so at the time, and which was, frankly, a severe disappointment to a lot of us. Do I think that I'd have reacted differently had I known? Yes and no. There is still no doubt that whatever his many personal foibles were JFK was the most magnetic leader I've known in my lifetime. The 'electricity' poured out of him, right through the TV screen - and there's been no one who has come even near that since - maybe Obama before he started having to make disappointing compromises, and perhaps Blair at the beginning, before we realised what a hopeless let-down he would turn out to be. But Kennedy's star, to my mind, outshines them all by far. He was 'charisma' itself.
In the days following the shooting we'd heard how, in a school somewhere in the southern States, a grinning teacher had gleefully announced the assassination to the assembled pupils, and the children clapped and cheered. I'm sure it wasn't unique. But I'm also sure it wasn't typical.

Within a very few years after this event Kennedy's reputation started turning big-time sour, in fact that of all the Kennedy's. (Not helped at all later by Edward and Chappaquiddick.) When Jackie Kennedy announced her intention to marry Greek multi-millionaire magnate and divorcee, Aristototle Onassis, the Church's disapproval was unambiguous, culiminating on her wedding day itself by the Vatican denouncing her as a 'public sinner'.
Re-appraisals of JFK's political legacy came thick and fast, mainly claiming that his radical credentials had been exaggerated and that his successor, Johnson, had actually been a greater President. There is no doubt that the latter was the one who had steered civil rights legislation through to its fulfilment, though would Kennedy have managed that anyway if he had survived? His political enemies were, at the time of the assassination, flexing their muscles for a fight to the end. His sudden death put them back in the box for while.
Robert Kennedy's politics were also being called into question long before he himself was gunned down in 1968.

And yet, half a century later, 1963 was a time of 'innocence' for which I still feel nostalgic, whilst being aware that it cannot return. The world has moved on too far for it to be repeated, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

On my only visit to the USA in 1969 I managed to make a visit to Arlington cemetery to see the grave with the eternal flame (and with Bobby's then as yet unconstructed grave set off slightly to the side). I recall being close to tears standing at the stone monument with his (or, more likely, his speechwriters') most-quoted words carved into them, six years after the event - and something of that same sadness remains in me even now.

This day 50 years ago will undoubtedly stay with me for my remaining time, and its power won't diminish now. It's poignant like few other memories. It's also a beautiful memory. Nothing in world affairs has left its mark on my mind like that event - and, while naturally profoundly regretting the tragedy itself,  I value enormously the experience of having lived through that time.


  1. I was in my 4th grade classroom (catholic school). the principal came on the loudspeaker system and told us to get ready to leave; she never said WHY we were being dismissed earlier than usual.

    when I arrived home, my mom was in front of the old b&w tv, crying. I did not understand why.

    it was not until 6/4/68 that I finally comprehended the events of 11/22/63.

    thank you for a perspective outside of the american experience, dear. I believe there was more than 1 shooter and that our govt/the mob/castro were enjoined in this tragedy.

    1. Thanks for that, A.M. I was hoping that someone would react with their own experience, even though there aren't that many of us around.

      I saw on the news yesterday that more than half of Americans believe that Oswald was not a lone gunman. (I think the percentage stated was as high as something like 62%) I don't know what to think. As with Diana's demise it's a much more interesting story to believe that it was a conspiracy, though in that case I really do think it was an unfortunate genuine accident, 'courtesy' of their driver.

      There was a most interesting programme about the assassination a few nights ago on our Channel 5, positing something I hadn't heard before viz that Oswald fired TWO shots, the first of which missed, the second of which penetrated Kennedy's throat, but the final absolutely fatal shot was fired accidentally (yes!) by one of the bodyguards in the following open car carrying a ready-cocked rifle which was discharged in error while he was trying to stand up in a moving car in the panic after Oswald's shots. I know on paper this sounds improbable ("Oh, yet another ridiculous theory!") but it did seem to fit in not only with all the known facts, but accounts for evidence (including from autopsy and weaponry) and taped interviews of by-standers 'going astray', the non-calling of witnesses and that particular bodyguard to the Warren Commission (the others from that car WERE called), and the silence of the CIA on the suggestion. That bodyguard died in 2005 and had always refused to discuss the matter.
      I'm not saying "There you are! Case proven!" There have been just too many theories bouncing around since it happened, though it did seem that this was more plausible than some that I've heard. But the chances are greatly that we'll just never know for sure exactly what did happen.

  2. Ray you write so well. I was not alive then, as you have probably gathered.

    My Father will often say, the 60's were the best time to be alive. plenty of work, plenty of everything. Slightly more innocent than now and people still cared enough

    I fear now, this would probably not make them stop programmes, or for anyone to mourn the loss of another countries political leader. a very sobering thought.

    When the twin towers came down, I know where I was, what I was wearing and exactly what I said. The same for the bombers in London. I was in Brixton at the time. That will never leave me.,

  3. Thanks very much for your generous words, Sol, but you should be aware of the number of times I return to my original article in order to eliminate the grammatical and punctuation errors and iron out the 'bumps'. Then you would know the effort that goes into improving it, which is a never-ending process.

    The 1960s was indeed a 'golden era' in so many ways, one of which was I think that pop music then was at its best it's ever been - but that's probably a lot to do with my age.
    But I think that we were also more inclined to accept things that were told to us, by governments, media, authorities. It was the flower-power times of the late-middle of that decade and the protest movements towards the end that made many of us aware of the right and the need to challenge, even if only in our minds.
    I'm pleased that we've become more cynical towards politicians and most of us can see their real motivations to act the way they do, namely self-preservation and (sometimes) personal enrichment, and that's all for the better.
    I agree that there'd now not be any great mourning nationally, let alone internationally, on a Kennedy scale, at the violent passing of any present day politician. Some true grief, yes, but nothing like it was in 1963.

    When I singled out the Kennedy assassination as being unique in my lifetime, although it was, I have to admit that, shamefully, the Twin Towers had not crossed my mind. That event is also right up there - but comparisons become futile after a certain point has been passed.

  4. Thanks for sharing your memories and for acknowledging that we wouldn't want to go back to the so-called innocence of 1963.

    1. It was a world of castles-in-the-air, Mitch - and as such they were vulnerable to the passage of time. The lingering nostalgia which I still feel for the era is tempered by the desire not to want to return to it. In so many ways we are better off now - though, of course, we now have totally new problems (environment, media, resources, information-snooping etc etc) all of which were unheard before present times.

  5. Thanks for sharing your memories of this time. I was also 17 at the time and an avid fan of the President. I happened to be stranded in Mexico at the time. Memories can play tricks, but it's fascinating how much detail we seem to remember about this event 50 years later.

    I have been a visitor here many times, but never one to comment, since I know, and care, little for the films of today. But that's for another time, perhaps.
    Thanks to Spo's Blogger meme, I will make my presence known from now on.

    1. Gratified at what you say, Sir. I've seen your name on other bloggers' posts but until now I hadn't looked at your own blog. Having now rectified that I must say I like what I see and you will more than likely see me too popping up there now and again in reciprocal fashion. Your post re the assassination reads very immediate and, indeed, moving - and the fact that we are precisely the same age ought to count for something.
      It's a privilege for me to have had you as a visitor here. Take care.

  6. Thanks for sharing your memory of that day. I confess I had always thought of it as a somehow uniquely American experience. In hindsight that was foolish on my part.

    Over the years it has become difficult to differentiate between my memories of the day versus the images that came to be memories of the days and weeks that followed.

    One memory that I know is real is sitting in my 2nd grade class room. We were learning Spanish words for some reason. I was in the back row because that teacher seated us alphabetically so I was fairly close to the door to the hallway. The school custodian walked and, standing in the doorway, speaking over the heads of the whole class, told our teacher what he'd just heard on the radio.

    The teacher left the room and went to the office. When she came back I remember she commented that she was about half way to the office when it occurred to her that it might be a hoax of some kind and she might be reprimanded for leaving a room full of 2nd graders unattended. Even at the time I thought that was an odd thing to have shared with us.

    1. H.K., as you now know it was HUGE news here, only rivalled in my lifetime by Diana's death - and probably equalled by the Cuban Missile Crisis of the year prior to JFK's death, when we were literally and nervously looking up at the skies, the most jittery time regarding world politics that I've ever lived through.
      I think your experience at school reflects the feeling that the news was so incredible it felt as though it was a bad dream. For some time everything appeared unreal - and I can, with only the perspective of hindsight, understand your teaching saying what she did. We were all stunned and there was no accounting for our actions and reactions.
      I was at work when the news of Robert K's assassination came through via our switchboard operator. I was working as one in an open plan office and, to my eternal shame, my reaction was to......LAUGH! I don't know why. I didn't think it was funny at all. It just came out. Thankfully, no one joined me in that reaction - and I was left to stew in my own juice while everyone else talked soberly.

      You are right when you suggest that one's memories can be subsequently 'manipulated' by what one thinks were or OUGHT to have been one's memories. In my case it was overwhelmingly the TV treatment of the event because the BBC's action, in particular, was so outrageously inappropriate. In that case I'm pretty sure that my memories of that aspect were true.

  7. Ray,
    Excellent post. Very interesting reading someone else's perspective of "Where was I?" the day President Kennedy was shot. I was a few years older than you, and at work when I heard. Of course I have never forgotten that weekend, including witnessing live the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald on TV while I was ironing my shirts on a rainy Sunday morning. I literally could not believe what I was seeing. Very interesting that you said French President DeGaulle was very conspicuous at President Kennedy's funeral. Coincidentally my brother John chauffeured his car. My brother was in the Army and stationed at Ft. Myers, VA in the motor pool. Maybe they had John chauffeur President DeGaulle because John was 6'6" at that time. Small world and my slight connection to the President Kennedy funeral. I also had a connection to Robert Kennedy. His was the only presidential campaign I ever worked on. My late friend Alice and I were working one night in Philadelphia (where we lived and worked), manning the telephones when the call came in that Senator Kennedy was shot and killed. We were stunned. They told us it was no longer necessary to make any more phone calls. We left and I've never worked on a political campaign since. I guess we all have interesting recollections and experienced events that have changed our lives forever.


    1. A MOST interesting comment, Ron. Your personal 'connections' to JFK and Robert, even if tangentially, offer a P.O.V. which few others can match.

      I'm 75% sure that I'd also been watching TV when Oswald was shot, though memories of those days following JFK's assassination are clouded somewhat by the mist of grief that had descended. Although it was itself a hardly credible event, I felt that what had happened a couple of days previously could never be out-done.

      It's good to share personal memories like this through these blogs. I've said what I did in a way I've never told anyone else before, which feels like getting it off one's chest, and particularly therapeutic when it's to someone like yourself to whom the experience of having living through that time was real and, indeed, influentially formative in one's life.

  8. I was very young when JFK was assassinated, having turned 3 in August of that year. What i remember most is all the adults around me crying. I'd never seen adults crying that i could remember and to see so many cry all at once startled me. Women as well as men. I looked at the tv, as they replayed the footage, and while i saw it, i don't think i connected it as something real until i saw the adults crying.

    As for Tony Blair or others who at first may have wowed us, i think the difference with them and JFK is that they lived beyond the 'honeymoon period' as it were. Had they been assassinated at the peak of their fame, i'm sure we'd put them on much higher pedastals.

    In my household, no one voted for Kennedy, but that didn't take away from the upset of the President being assassinated. Regardless of political party, our leader had been shot and killed.

    1. Good point re Tony Blair etc, Megan. JFK's assassination raised him to the status of martyr. If he'd survived to continue in politics I think we'd all have seen that he too had feet of clay, which were in any case beginning to show before he died.

      I was never a supporter in any sense of Mrs Thatcher, yet her recent death did move me. I hardly dare admit that I even watched her grand funeral with a bit of a lump in my throat.

      Like you, I also remember being confused when very young at seeing adults crying - though in my case it was when close relatives died. I thought that crying was not something that grown-ups 'do' - and I clearly remember being unable to distinguish between their crying and their laughing - which all seems very odd on hindsight, but also understandable that a very young mind couldn't make sense of that aspect of the real world.

      Many thanks for visiting my blog, Megan. Much appreciated.