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Kids’ view of the Kennedy assassination

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, was one of those events, like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, that everyone who was old enough at the time will always remember. Even children were affected by it.

In our neighborhood, kids discussed the assassination in backyards. I was eight years old and got most of my information from the 10-year-old girl across the street. It was her considered opinion that F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was behind it, along with Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, not only because of the 10-year-old’s advanced age and undoubted wisdom, but because even among children of that time there was some sense that the Kennedys were involved with lots of shady characters. The cast of villains ranged from the mob to the comical (to us) Fidel Castro, and the Kennedys were known to be feuding with both Hoover and Johnson. We learned such things mainly from bits of grownup conversation, not that we had any more interest in politics than we did in homework.

JFK and his brothers, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy, were said to have benefited greatly from the wealth and connections of their father, and they were both Hollywood handsome and glamorous, a lesson not lost on any of us.

The 10-year-old also figured the Russians would attack us now that we had no president. This also seemed reasonable and, looking up at the gray November sky from our backyard clothes line that somber Friday afternoon, it seemed that waves of Russian bombers would be coming over any minute. None of us kids realized that Johnson became acting president as soon as Kennedy was incapacitated, nor were we yet aware that he had been officially sworn in on Air Force One just two hours after JFK died, before the plane headed back to Washington, D.C., from Dallas.

 

Everyone watched television all that weekend, something we normally weren’t allowed to do, except in the evenings. We thought it was pathetic when Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, complained that a police officer had hit him during his arrest, especially considering that Oswald had also shot and killed a Dallas police officer shortly after he killed Kennedy. Oswald clearly was a whiny loser.

That Sunday we saw Oswald himself shot and killed on live national television by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. This happened at 11:21 a.m. in Dallas, an hour later on the East Coast, by which time we were home from church. Our mother, preparing Sunday dinner, was standing in the kitchen doorway as we sprawled on the living room floor in front of the TV, and she wondered whether we children should be watching all this violence unfold.

However it affected us, the world in the 1960s seemed filled with violence and folly, a belief which time has only reinforced. Violence seemed to be the only means of settling disputes from Vietnam to the Watts riots, the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the hippie protests and the counterculture bombings. We children came no closer to this real world mayhem while growing up than the pages of Life magazine and the nightly news with Walter Cronkite, although we did spend much of our own time re-enacting war and carnage on neighborhood battlefields.

For a time in the ’60s it seemed like the only people who could become or aspire to the presidency were those with catchy initials like JFK, RFK or LBJ, not to mention FDR, or those with colorful nicknames like “Ike.” Even the presidential wives had memorable names like “Mamie,” “Jackie” and the unfathomable “Lady Bird.” Richard Nixon, on the other hand, had neither a good name nor the Kennedy glamour, dooming his presidency from the start.

Since 1963, assassination experts have claimed that conspiracy theories thrive because the masses cannot accept that one insignificant person like Oswald could so alter history. But people can accept such things — if they are true. It’s just that the Kennedys had so many enemies and misdeeds that aggrieved parties had to get in line and numerous powerful players could have initiated retaliation.

Today, the release of the last classified documents on the assassination has so far revealed no conspiracies involving Hoover, Johnson, Castro or anyone else. Perhaps details will continue to come out for other controversial events as well, such as the 1947 Roswell incident, so that we can finally learn how many aliens survived the crash and whether any of them are still living.

My old neighborhood advisor may disagree, but I don’t think the Roswell aliens had anything to do with Dallas. Probably.

 

Mark Godburn is an antiquarian bookseller and writer in North Canaan. His book, “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets,” is available from the Oak Knoll Press.