Growing up, I remember the Kennedy assassination being compared often to the terrorist attacks on 9/11—as an event that defined a generation. The news stories and documentaries would pour out every November and my father, who was six at the time of the shooting, would leave them running for days on the living room TV. I learned the historical details of the assassination from the constant coverage, but never thought to ask dad what he remembered about the assassination or how it affected him and his family. Since dad was a young child at the time of the assassination I never considered that he would have many clear memories of the event and the days following it. I was surprised to find that he remembered not only the details of where he was and what he did that day but also that he remembered clearly the responses and attitudes of the adults around him.
His memories of the event begin in a familiar classroom. He sat in a row of first-grade desks next to the door while Ms. Percelly taught. Sometime during the early afternoon, the PA system came on to announce that the president had been shot. Many students went home early. Dad remembers eventually taking the bus home.
When dad got home, both channels of the family TV were playing a constant stream of news about the assassination. The events that followed the shooting unfolded continuously on live TV. Even advertisements were removed from the stream of assassination coverage. Dad was particularly impacted by seeing Jacqueline Kennedy standing by Lyndon Johnson with her husband’s blood still on her blouse.
What I found interesting was precisely how much dad, as a young child, was exposed to the reality of the assassination. After 9/11, I remember the school guidance counselor coming in to inform us that two planes had run into buildings and that we had nothing to fear without giving any more information. Once I got home I saw the event in the news broadcasts, but I had only the vaguest understanding that I was seeing a malicious attack. In contrast, it seems like my father was exposed to much more of the news surrounding the Kennedy assassination. I found it particularly strange that the principal announced the news so bluntly over the PA system since that kind of announcement was so different than my own experience.
I was also surprised to hear of America’s response to the assassination. Dad described it as “the trigger for a very chaotic time.” The shooting was one of the earlier major social and political events of the 1960s, and left the nation feeling as though it was “socially spiraling out of control.” Dad described the nation’s shock after the Kennedy assassination growing into a sense of total loss of control following the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as riots in Detroit and the 1969 Kent shooting. I had not considered the response to the presidential assassination being quite so long-lasting and far removed from the shock of the...