Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering the darkest of dark days

This Friday (Nov. 22) marks the 50th anniversary of the darkest day in this nation’s history – at least in my 61-year lifetime (and yes, even darker than Sept. 11, 2001). And now living in the Dallas area makes it especially more sensitive as the city gears up to produce a “non-celebration” of the singular event that continues … 50 years later … to define it.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas while riding in a motorcade through its streets, everything changed in America; innocence, it was said, was totally lost, crushed and destroyed. Exactly who did it, why it was done and what it subsequently meant has been the subject of more literature, talk and cinematic conjecture than perhaps any single historical moment in American history. Landing a man on the moon in 1969 marked the biggest achievement in man’s earthly history, but the JFK murder was the bleakest episode I have ever imagined.
It scarred all Americans (alive at that moment) for life and it scarred a city (Dallas) for all time; both groups live with the consequences to this day. When my wife and I would travel to other cities, and mentioned being from “out-of-town” and disclosing our location as being Dallas, the constant response was one of three things – the Cowboys, J.R. Ewing, or … “that’s where Kennedy was killed.”
Actually, it often came out of a stranger’s mouth as being “that’s the city that killed Kennedy.” It is impossible to locate enough stain remover to wipe away those scars.
I was 11 years old when Kennedy was killed and I can remember most of that weekend with surprising clarity (it seems to have become the norm). You remember those traumatic moments the most and all too often forget the times we really hope to cherish.
I was sitting in fifth grade class (at Hampton Elementary in northern Detroit) and it was around 3:15 on that Friday afternoon (on Michigan time). Our teacher, Mrs. Gail Fuerhrig, left the room and moments later, returned crying. She began stuttering something about “the President has been shot” and disappeared again to hide her tears.
At 11, growing up in a rather naive “Ozzie-and-Harriet” society, the concept of death was never clearly defined to children as it is today. No child in that classroom had seen the Abraham Zapruder film, or wondered about the grassy knoll behind Dealey Plaza. “Shot” could have just meant, “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” in a playground manner.
For the next three days, no one watched anything else, talked about anything else and breathed anything else until the funeral was completed the following Monday. And you could do little else since the entire nation shut down for that 72-hour period.
Well, not exactly ALL the nation. Of all things, Americans still went to sporting events – the NFL schedule went on as usual on that Sunday, under some ridiculous guise of “The President would have wanted to us to …”
The Michigan-Ohio State game was not played on Nov. 23, but was held the next week, November 30 (Thanksgiving weekend) in Michigan Stadium (according to official U-M record). The Wolverines lost 14-10, en route to a miserable 3-4-2 record in front of just 36,424 fans – the lowest crowd for any football game at Michigan from Sept. 22, 1945 (when a mere 26,076 showed up to see Michigan play Great Lakes Naval Station).
For the record, in the 50 years since, 1963 was the smallest home crowd ever in Michigan Stadium.
I remember the solemnness and emotion of the funeral, with the horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket and the rider-less horse, nervously walking up Pennsylvania Ave.
But the day before, on the Sunday afternoon, live television broke new ground and crossed a line that we, as a society, have never returned. I (and millions others) sat and watched suspect Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down and murdered by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police headquarters … on live television.
For the first time in that medium’s history, stark, raw, naked violence entered the American home. And it came in connection with the worst crime in U.S. history. It WAS ground zero for reality television!
Since that day, our history has been earmarked by violence as a collective unit (warfare, riots, the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University, the 1968 Democratic convention) or individual acts (the shooting deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King).
We will never know what would have happened if Kennedy lived through that moment ... if there was no gunfire the Texas Book Depository above Dealey Plaza. This much is true – nothing changed the course of modern American history as much as that day. There probably would have been an earlier end to the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon probably would never have been president, Watergate would not have taken place and Lord knows what else would NOT have come to pass.
That “what if” parlor game can last forever.
I am like millions of other people, who drive past the Texas Book Depository (now a county facility and home to The Sixth Floor Museum), and get a creepy sensation when I look at the, window, the plaza and the grassy knoll. When I drive under the Commerce Street trestle (totally unchanged since 1963), I seen visions of the motorcade headed to Parkland Hospital, and it makes my skin crawl; no matter how I try to fight it, the feeling is everlasting.
“Down Elm Street, turn right at Houston and left onto Commerce” remains, to this day one of the best routes to leave downtown Dallas, on the same trek the motorcade, going through an estimated 150,000 onlookers in Dallas to catch a glimpse of the Kennedy (including Jackie, making her first campaign trip west of Virginia).
And you remember the words of Nellie Connally, wife of then-Texas Gov. John Connally, sitting in the front seat of the Lincoln Continental, carrying the President, as she turned toward JFK and said, “See Mr. President! You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!” The double-negative was almost immediately followed by the three shots.
Thus, the skin crawls, the hairs stand to attention and you glimpse at the sixth floor and simply wonder why…
When Oliver Stone’s brilliantly-constructed movie, “JFK,” was released, the nation reinitiated the debate about what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. The flaws which may have existed in that effort can be debated, but the movie certainly was a breathtaking examination of a retained popular point of view among many people. It asked questions that needed to be raised and, in the end, sought truthful answers – no matter what the truth revealed.
I first viewed the movie in Dallas at the now-defunct North Park Cinema, with a large audience in the house. The three hours rushed by in what seemed to be only a few minutes; at the end, there was some applause, but mostly, people sat there stunned, a little dazed and ... ashamed (the best word to describe the feelings of others (saw).
I heard many people crying, not for the memories of that day, but for how they felt about living in Dallas.
“It makes me so ashamed that it happened here,” said one woman. “WE killed him.”
Not true! But perception has been that particular reality for the last 50 years. And that is a tragedy in itself – which should be acknowledged (and attempted to erase) after all this time. One cable documentary aired as background to the 50th anniversary has been entitled, “Dallas: City of Hate;” a harsh but probably accurate description of 1963, but NOT 2013.
What that 1963 incident did to Dallas is also a tragedy. For time infinitum, Dallas, Texas became known worldwide as the city “where JFK was killed” or “the city that killed Kennedy.” No amount of success by any sports franchise, or trying to turn Dallas into a fashion capital, has erased that mental chalk outline. Dallas didn’t deserve its fate; it’s just a fact of its life.
This is a city of excellent restaurants, a growing fine arts district, strong multi-cultural music scene, its own set of athletic champions (notably downtown-based Dallas Mavericks and Stars) and ever-increasing attempts to better itself on a daily basis.
Until a new signature national brand or emblem takes root with the public, Nov. 22, 1963, will remain Dallas’ (and America’s) darkest, indelible day ... when everything … and everyone ... everywhere … changed.
Elm to Houston to Commerce…

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