By Mike Maltais
With most of the world’s media acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, on Nov. 22, 1963, it’s all but impossible to avoid revisiting one’s personal recollection of that tragic day.
It would be difficult to find anyone who was then old enough to be aware of the event but does not remember where he was and what he was doing upon hearing the news that JFK had been shot.
I was a senior at Twisp High School and president of the associated student body on that Friday morning in November 1963. I don’t recall the reason but I had cut part of a late-morning class and was en route to the school office when I encountered the principal, Les Perfect, in the hallway.
His expression was somber and his familiar smile gone.
“President Kennedy has been shot,” he said simply and added, “in Dallas.”
Whether or not he knew at that moment, he did not elaborate to me regarding the president’s condition.
“There will be an assembly at 2 p.m.,” was all he said.
By the time the confirmed assassination was announced to the assemblage in the gymnasium, most of the students already knew. School was dismissed. I drove home.
For much of the next three days my family followed the unfolding events on television with a surreal sense of disbelief. I particularly recall the riderless horse and the haunting strains of the “Navy Hymn.” Not since the Cuban missile crisis a year earlier had a distant event intruded upon our lives with such immediacy.
As that confrontation escalated I remember being in a math class taught by the late Fae Dibble, where a number of us were gathered with her around her radio listening to updates as Soviet freighters approached the U.S. blockade. While little was said, everyone present sensed that if the crisis was not diffused, and soon, our lives even in the remote Methow Valley would be radically altered.
Some years back I was in greater Dallas on business and decided to devote what remained of the late afternoon to a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza on the west end of downtown to see the actual site of an event that changed the world as I knew it.
In spite of repeatedly consulting the street map I carried, I was having trouble recognizing the place that I was sure had to be a stone’s throw from where I eventually parked. I exited my vehicle and walked a short distance before I realized I was standing in the middle of what I had come to consider hallowed ground.
It was only then I comprehended that the source of my confusion resided in the site itself.
It looked so ordinary.
I guess I expected everything to be gilded or otherwise memorialized to match the enormity of what occurred there. In that regard the fault rested with the observer and not the observed.
The very simplicity of the place made its impact all the more profound.
All of the memories, upheavals and repercussions triggered by the death of the young president began there and were compressed in a block of common ground reduced to the mean dimensions of mere mortals. So common, in fact, that I couldn’t at first find the place that I was sure would draw me like a blooded bird dog into its presence.
I climbed the grassy slope in the fading light to a point where I calculated Abraham Zapruder might have stood as he filmed the unthinkable and remained until it was too dark to see. Sitting there, I penned some speculative private thoughts.
What words would Robert Frost, who composed “Dedication” for JFK’s inauguration, divine here?
Had he lived would this young leader, tarnished by the Bay of Pigs debacle and traumatized by the Cuban missile crisis, have excised the nation from the growing malignancy that was the Vietnam conflict and thereby possibly spared the life of my college roommate who was killed there in May 1968?
I like to think he would have.
Was one bullet from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle responsible by extension for over 58,000 American lives lost in Vietnam?
While I was so engaged, a dutiful parking attendant was penning an overtime citation that I found later on my car. Curiously, it was that mundane ticket that grabbed me by the senses and led me back to the reality that the rest of the world, or at least Dallas law enforcement, did not share or even recognize my state of temporary detachment upon visiting this infamous kill zone.
Kennedy would be 96 this year. It would have been interesting to watch him evolve into the role of elder statesman.
Mike Maltais is sports editor of the Methow Valley News.