WILLIAMSTOWN — I was 10 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
It was a sunny, mild Friday, and the weekly assembly of pupils at my school had just been dismissed. I was waiting for a friend, at whose house I was to spend the weekend, when a girl ran out of the main building. She was holding a transistor radio just above her head and she was crying.
“The president has been shot,” she gasped.
At this 59-year distance, I can’t recall how I felt. I remember some kids laughing at what they thought was a prank, but parents had been steadily arriving to pick up their children, and the expressions on those grown-up faces quickly put the lie to the joke theory.
My friend appeared and we set off for his house, which was situated just yards away from the school. There was no one home when we arrived, and we skipped our usual first stop — the refrigerator — and headed for the big console radio in the living room.
In pre-cable 1963, over-the-air television signals in Williamstown were neither plentiful nor powerful. Many people relied on their radios for news, especially of the “breaking” variety, and for sports coverage.
We sat on the floor in front of the radio, occasionally changing stations in hopes of hearing about new developments. We applied our 10-year-old minds to analysis of the situation, its origins and its possible outcomes.
Steeped as it was in the spy-infested, thrill-filled realm of fancy that we often inhabited — most faithfully on Friday and Saturday nights in the Walden Theater on Spring Street — our shared world view tended to lean toward the dark side.
My friend Charley, who’d had it in for Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, since the get-go, was quick to lay the crime at Johnson’s door. The vice president’s deep Texas roots, his sometimes-crude behavior and his obvious ambition and political savvy combined to make him Charley’s choice for conspirator-in-chief.
Johnson’s role as villain in Charley’s book was cemented when Johnson insisted on being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One before it left Dallas for Washington, D.C.
“That’s it,” he declared, firmly setting his bottle of Tab diet soda on the shag carpet. “He’s going to take over the government.”
Johnson, of course, did nothing of the sort. Indeed, his brilliant applications of political arm-twisting, horse trading and hand holding succeeded in ferrying two of the nation’s most consequential pieces of legislation, Medicare and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, through a Congress that might well have proven proof even to Kennedy’s many charms and wiles.
The relative ease and speed with which Johnson’s mastery of the workings of American government and his advancement of Kennedy’s progressive principles were enshrined in the nation’s history is especially enviable in 2022.
In the years since Kennedy’s murder, and, perhaps, partly because of it, millions of Americans have become so distrustful of their government that they sign on with a simple-minded, unhinged, failed businessman who deals in lies and exudes ignorance while simultaneously encouraging it. This macabre show’s been running for nearly six years and it’s remarkable that signs of reduction in its staying power have only recently begun to develop.
On the Sunday that followed his assassination, Kennedy’s body was taken on a horse-drawn caisson from the White House to the Capitol rotunda, where it was to lie in state.
My late father and I were traveling from Williamstown to Boston, where my mother had been visiting. We were listening to a radio commentator’s report on the procession. Like the previous Friday, the day was sunny and mild.
We were driving along the bank of the Charles River when my father suddenly swerved off the road into a bus stop. He put the car in park, crossed his forearms over the steering wheel, and rested his head there for a short time. He made no sound. Minutes later, we were on our way again.
He and I never discussed that somber trip, but it occurred to me in later years that he had been overcome with grief at the violent death of a contemporary of infinite promise who had already made such an indelible mark on the world.
Most Americans, it seemed, felt that Kennedy spoke for them when he talked in June 1963 about bringing people together.
“If we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” he said. “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”