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James R. Stout

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How I Remember It

November 20, 2017

As we quickly approach another November 22nd, I can’t help thinking of that particular one 54 years ago this Wednesday. If you were to talk to anyone who was old enough to remember the day that JFK was assassinated, then you would hear them talk about where they were and how they heard about it and what happened the few moments following the event. I’d like to go just a little bit further. I won’t go into the “where I was at the moment” part. You’ve heard a lot of those stories.

First, I do want to point out to those of you who are too young to have remembered the event firsthand or perhaps you wouldn’t be born for decades later that the event itself was much more profound in the American psyche than you might realize. You’ll have to trust me on this, but perhaps some of what follows will give you an idea.

I got off the school bus at about 3 p.m. that Friday afternoon. Of course, the ride from the school was filled with talk of the assassination. But things were still very fluid at that moment. They would be for a long time. As I approached our house there in Bryan, Texas where we had only moved to 7 weeks prior, I noticed that our car was home. That was unusual due to my Dad didn’t usually get home from work that early. Furthermore, the trunk to the car was lifted and yawning as though bored while waiting to be fed. I walked into the house and things were moving fast. Mom was packing up some things, Dad was carrying luggage to the back door, and my two sisters were chattering like sisters seem to do. Mom saw me and said, “There’s a snack on the table for you. Go ahead and eat your snack.”

Well, that wasn’t exactly a new thing, but there was urgency in her voice which WAS different for her. She also told me that my little suitcase was on my bed and that after eating my snack I should pack some things. We were going to my Grandparent’s house for the weekend. Hold the phone. That just didn’t make any sense  to me. We were already going to go there the next Wednesday after school to celebrate Thanksgiving. Why would we be going this weekend too? I asked Mom that question and she said, “I’ll explain when we’re on our way.” Mom’s can be much more cryptic than Dad’s. Dad would just spit it out and be done with. Mom had to chew on it a bit.

So, I had my snack, packed my little blue suitcase with a couple of pairs of “play” jeans, a couple of shirts, some underwear (would you believe I’m still embarrassed to mention that?), my baseball cards (if nothing else, they would be going on this trip), my new Cub Scout cap to show my Grandpa, some socks that Mom would likely not approve of, and a recent “The Flash” comic book. We packed up the car, Mom locked the doors to the house while we watched from the car, and we were off.

Mom explained as we were driving out of town on Highway 21 that due to the events of the day it was felt that we should be with family. That was all the explanation that I needed. Most of the time a child doesn’t require a detailed explanation. Short and sweet will usually do. Believe it or not we didn’t talk about the assassination on the hour and a half drive. Mom wasn’t ready to do that. So, she brought along a book of short stories compiled by Alfred Hitchcock. Scary stories. What was she thinking? Well, I didn’t mind because I loved those stories.

We got to my Grandparent’s house just as it was getting dark and just in time for dinner. My grandparents were much for T.V., but they did own one - a 10 year-old Zenith black and white - and on good days we could get in Channel 2 in Houston, but mostly it was Channel 3 in Bryan or Channel 9 in Lufkin. No matter what channel we turned to though, the same thing was on. News about the death of our President.

That night and the following day we stayed close to each other. Keep in mind that only a year before we went through the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and nearly had nuclear war. The truth is we just had no idea what would happen following the murder of our President. Whether you liked him or not or agreed with his politics, he was our President. That meant something back then. Also keep in mind that to my parents and grandparents about the only thing they had to compare such a shocking event to was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That lead to the most devastating war in history. The uneasiness of not knowing what might happen - would there be a war, an overthrow of the government, chaos? So, families tended to gather around each other and basically “hunker down”. By Sunday morning some things were known. The name Lee Harvey Oswald was now known in all American homes. We didn’t know yet what his part was in the assassination, but we were being told by the press that he was a lone gunman. We knew he had also murdered a police officer following the assassination. But we really didn’t know much.

My parents decided it was safe to go back home in Bryan and we would still be coming back for Thanksgiving. But there was a state funeral to be held the next day and nobody would be going to school or work. The nation would instead be mourning the loss of our president and his funeral would be an all day news affair. So, we would be leaving after lunch and going back home. But not before we got turned on our heads yet again.

Grandma and Mom were in the kitchen preparing lunch. My sisters were on the “sleeping porch” (it was a bedroom with three sides composed of windows) doing whatever girls do at that age. Grandpa, Dad, and myself were sitting in the living room watching a special news report. It was live coverage of Oswald being moved from the jail location he was at to a more secure jail. As we watched him being escorted from the elevator into the parking garage a blur in the grouping of journalist leaned out and a gunshot rang out. Dad and Grandpa both came to their feet and I saw Oswald clutch at his stomach and crumple to the ground. Grandpa simply said, “I believe that man just shot him!” It was there for all the world to see. All the young children watching to see murder - “In dying color” (well, black and white for us).

Can you imagine what it felt like to people my grandparent’s age? Of course, it was going to get a whole lot worse in the 60’s. It was going to eventually lead to a nation watching 3000 souls perish “Live” on T.V. We haven’t stopped falling since.

We went ahead and came home that afternoon. We sang songs in the car on the way home. Not because we were happy, but because singing together as a family was comforting and made us feel safer.

The next day I, along with an entire nation, watched the funeral of JFK. My parents were not big fans of JFK or his politics, but they were incredible sadden by the whole event. We made it through the funeral and then like so many more children my age, I went outside and played. Life went on. Despite the wound to the American psyche, we moved on. Christmas still came and we sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, laughed, loved, and enjoyed life to the fullest. Within a couple of months there was something new for America to talk about - The Beatles. My parents and most of their generation didn’t much care for them. Just about anyone under 25 thought they were the greatest. We were too preoccupied with “England Swinging Like A Pendulum Due” to think about JFK.  

So, there’s my recollections of the aftermath of the assassination of JFK. Remember, these memories were from my then 8 year old point of view. I have no doubt that there were people of various ages, walks of life, different religion, different race, and geographic locations, but all American, that may have many different memories of the same event. But I firmly believe that if you were old enough to remember it all, then you know what was lost and how the American path was altered. The ripples are still being felt.

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