2006-12-01 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

Memories of The JFK Assassination Half A Life Ago
Commentary By Howard Schwach


November 22, 1963, a day that will live in infamy, one of those seminal days that you always remember when people ask, "Where were you when Kennedy died?"

I was too young to remember the first seminal day of my life, December 7, 1941, because I was only a month over two years old at the time.

I thought that the Kennedy assassination would be my last seminal day and that thought lasted about 38 years, until September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

It has been years since anybody asked me where I was when Kennedy died, although my grandson seems to have taken an interest in his life and times, although not yet the way he died.

Yet, the memories flood back each November 22, just as if it had happened yesterday rather than half a life ago.

I was in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). The ship was in drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I traveled to and from Brooklyn from my parent's apartment in Wavecrest Gardens.

It was a Friday and I had just arrived at the apartment and turned on the television set to hear, "President Kennedy slipped down on the seat of his automobile,"

My first thought was that the president had somehow hurt his back again. Then, the phone rang. It was my then-girlfriend (who later became my wife) and she quickly gave me the news that Kennedy had been shot. I went back into the living room and watched the television for awhile, at least until I got the confirmation from Walter Cronkite that the president had died of his wounds.

The weekend was a blur of funereal music and repeats of the shooting and the events going on in Washington, D.C.

On Sunday morning, November 24, I went with my father to the Woodmere Lanes in Nassau County to watch him bowl in the Knights of Pythias League.

I was getting a coke and watching the television set in the lounge when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot live on television.

The weekend seemed surreal. That day, Lyndon B. Johnson, somebody we all considered to be a country hick and political hack, was sworn in as president.

Camelot was postponed, pending the ascension of Bobby Kennedy at a later date. As we all know now, that ended and so did Camelot only five years later with an assassin's bullet ending Bobby's life as well.

From the time of his death in 1963 until today, those who revered him and those who reviled him have debated JFK's legacy.

Was Kennedy planning to end America's nascent involvement in Vietnam?

Did Kennedy's actions during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba bring credit or discredit to the nation?

Was the Cuban Missile Crisis the "finest moment" for the Kennedy administration, or did he almost bring us to the brink of nuclear destruction?

Was he one of the most forceful statesmen in American history or was he simply an inveterate ladies man whose deteriorating health and caddish behavior was kept out of the limelight by an adoring press?

Probably, he was all of the above.

To my generation, those born during World War II and who lived through the Korean War, the Cold War and the foibles of politicians, Kennedy was the great hope for the future.

My first vote was cast in November of 1960, the day after I turned 21 years old and achieved voting age. That vote was for John F. Kennedy, despite the fact that he was the first Catholic to come that close to the presidency (Al Smith came before, but never had much of a chance to be elected) and that we were warned that "the Pope would take over America should Kennedy be elected." He and his administration, called "The Irish Mafia" by its detractors, were the hope of the younger generation.

When Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," we took that to heart.

I have to say that there were many sailors on the ship who were happy that Kennedy was killed, especially those from the south and west. They saw Kennedy as weak-willed because of the Bay of Pigs and "Soft on Communism" despite his stand during the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year. There were two memorial services held on the ship for the fallen president - one Catholic and the other Protestant. There were no Jewish chaplains on the ship, but the 20 or so Jewish sailors (and one officer) held our own service for Kennedy in the ship's library.

Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on November 25 with all the pomp and circumstance that a president's funeral brings.

On November 29, President Johnson set up the Warren Commission, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. That commission ruled that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president.

Many people did not believe that Oswald acted alone. There were books and movies that posited a conspiracy at the highest levels of government. There was talk of the "pristine bullet" and "the grassy knoll" and "the three hobos that were arrested and then never seen again."

It has been 43 years, however, and I have to believe the old saw that one person can keep a secret, but two can't."

Had there been a conspiracy, there would have been some word of it by now - a book, a movie, a memoir, a death-bed confession. There have been none of those things.

John F. Kennedy was the hope of his generation. He was wiped out by an anti-Castro lunatic who fled to Russia and then returned.

His brother Bobby was killed by an Arab man who thought that Kennedy would do too much for Israel should he be elected president.

Such is the way the world turns. We are all poorer for their deaths too young.

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