Business as Usual

Fifty-seven years ago today at exactly 12:30 pm Central time, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The medical staff at Parkland Hospital declared him dead a half hour later. I remember watching the arrival of the president’s casket and Mrs. Kennedy at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland that evening. As a young boy, I didn’t know what a president or an assassination was–my father had to explain both–but I could see clearly that something momentous was happening. The assassination had stopped the adult world in its tracks, which fascinated me.

Something else fascinated me, especially after watching replays of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963. Not knowing the details of the events that occurred that weekend and being incapable of putting them into their proper context even if I had known, I viewed the three murders (i.e., the president, Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, and Oswald) and the drama that engulfed them through the only lens available to me. That is, ritual sacrifice.

My parents had saved up enough money to enroll me in a Catholic grammar school, and at the time I was preparing for the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist. Sacrifice, death, and betrayal formed a significant part of the catechesis for Eucharist, which included ritual acts, prayer, fasting, and good deeds (see Lent Lingers On).

This served as an ideal lens for me to interpret the events in Dallas and the subsequent funeral and burial at Arlington National Cemetery (see New World Disorder). Kennedy, being Catholic, ensured that the experience would remain with me forever and that death would affect the way I approached life, which is to say through a continuum of dying-death-resurrection. My school put a coffin draped in black in the nave of the church in front of the communion rail. The nuns ushered us in every day to pray for the soul of the dead president and the nation. For a young boy, it made death tangible.

I witnessed another change in the adult world, one that perplexed me. I wasn’t certain how the assassination related to adults, but I noticed that eventually they went back to doing the same things in the same ways as if nothing had happened. I not only found this objectionable but considered it a betrayal of a leader who was sacrificed in much the same way that Jesus was sacrificed. In my mind, being gunned down in Dealey Plaza was no less bloody than being tortured and crucified on Calvary.

Which brings me back to the night of November 22, 1963 at Andrews Air Force Base. If you ask most people who were around at the time what they remember from that night, they’ll tell you about the truck backing up, the lowering of the casket into the ambulance, and Bobby and Jackie Kennedy coming down from the truck to escort the body of the president. They may even recall the blood spatter on Jackie’s dress.

But what many people overlook is the new president’s address to the nation, his first in that role. Lyndon Johnson stood on the tarmac that night with his wife, “Lady Bird,” at his side as the world waited for news, comfort, and, most importantly, a sign that the new head of state was firmly in command of the situation.

It was an unenviable task given that many people were still in shock and the focus remained on President Kennedy, Jackie, and the investigation back in Dallas. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for this gangly man as he strode to the microphones with his simple wife, both of whom looked quite ordinary next to the Kennedys. Still, Johnson stared through his thick glasses and began.

“This is a sad time for all people,” he drawled. “We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help—and God’s.”

The best thing about the speech is that Johnson kept it short. He kept it simple. He was humble. No Gettysburg Address here, but then that would have been inappropriate. Still, something was missing. The energy and optimism were gone. The flair had fizzled. Although I couldn’t explain it, I felt it. I felt loss, disappointment, a kind of death. Or was it betrayal? Whatever it was, I knew that we were back to business as usual.

Come Monday morning, I would have to go to school again.

“Just A Closer Walk With Thee” performed by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. Intersound released on January 24, 2006.

Image credits: feature taken from “November 22, 1963: A Photo Essay,” The Atlantic. Andrews Air Force Base from CNN. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

5 comments

  1. Robert, this has caused me to revisit that terrible weekend in1963.

    I was a high school freshman, and a kid came into our classroom prior to the start of our English class, and said that the President had been shot. I didn’t believe him, but soon the loudspeakers came to life as they broadcast the breaking news. I remember Frank McGee saying “30 minutes after the announcement that the President had been killed….” and how stunned I was.

    School dismissed immediately. When I arrived home I was wearing a rain coat and went immediately to the basement where, for some unknown reason, we had a color television. I sat down around 3:30, and at 7:00 PM realized I still had the raincoat on, I was that mesmerized.

    The next morning was rainy. I woke up, trying to convince myself it was all a dream, and then realizing it was all too real. The Oswald shooting on Sunday, and the funeral Monday, completed the weekend of grief. The NFL played their games as scheduled that Sunday, though, to their lasting embarrassment and regret. Talk about :”business as usual”.

    Today, we are sadly accustomed to unspeakable tragedy. But then, it was a complete departure from life as we knew it — and the end of our simpler, less complicated world.

  2. Yes, Robert, how that day stands out. On that day, one of the few male teachers at my elementary school, walked across the playground, let out a cry of grief, then fell down on the pavement in seizures and convulsions. And yes, the next school day continued without comment. And I wondered…why?

  3. There are certain events that are embedded in your brain that never fade or become vague. When I am reminded of that day, as I was when I read your thoughts, I am immediately back in time, standing I in my doctor’s office, very pregnant with Kevin. The announcement of the shooting stopped time. There was a dreadful silence and I turned and walked out of his office. Rob, to this day I don’t know why I did this – I never went to church. I drove straight to St. Jane’s RCC, went in, sat down – I didn’t pray, I just sat there. I was numb, the process of thinking had shut down. My childhood, in the 30’s and 40’s, was inundated with constant news of the war accompanied by very graphic and lurid photographs of destruction and death. Today, parents shelter their children from seeing this, don’t know if that’s good or bad. I got used to seeing these pictures. With Kennedy, it was different. It seemed personal. And, it did, change the world – my world. Two days later, I saw Oswald shot and gave a mental shrug – oh, well, he deserved it. I should have cared that a person, no matter how evil, had his life taken from him. After that, it seemed assignations became commonplace. Today, riots, looting, anger are the norm. We are getting used to them as we did the assignations – so, where do we go from here?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Liz, and your testimony. I have to say about Oswald, though, that I wonder if he really shot Kennedy. There were witnesses of him killing Tippit, which means he was involved in a direct way. But with Kennedy I tend to believe him about being a “patsy.” He was only 24 at the time and probably a sociopath, but if his motive was fame, why would he have denied doing it? I think he got in over his head with some dangerous people. We’re still paying for it.

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