IT'S BEEN 47 YEARS SINCE DEALEY PLAZA...AND WE STILL LONG FOR CLOSURE
(Published 5/17/2010 The Cypress Times)
By Chuck Helppie
The news of John F. Kennedy's assassination was so shocking, so unexpected that it generated a gasp heard 'round the world. People simply stopped breathing for a second. If you lived through it, you know what I mean. If you didn't, ask your parents or grandparents. They will tell you precisely what they were doing and how they felt when they heard the news.
The overwhelming quest for closure continues to this day. We are still searching for answers. Over two million visitors — from all over the world — make a solemn pilgrimage to the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza each year. Most come to see what they have only read about or seen on film. Others come because they feel it is sacred ground.
Though I was only eleven years old in 1963, my grief was as tangible as any adult. Buoyed by Kennedy's "...ask not what your country can do for you speech", I felt the promise of America. But when I heard the news of his death, I was engulfed with a sadness that was more profound than any emotion I had ever experienced.
On that cold November morning in 1963, I stood stoically with my family on Constitution Avenue awaiting the funeral cortege. Thousands of people lined the streets in mournful silence. I heard the cortege before I saw it. The relentless drumbeats reverberated through the Capital, conveying the finality of death.
Moments before the cortege actually passed us by, the crowd began to whisper that Lee Harvey Oswald had been gunned down while in police custody in Dallas. I heard a man several feet behind me comment grimly, "...now we'll never know what really happened." The moribund weight of this grim news was oppressive.
My father worked for Bobby Kennedy in the antitrust division of the Justice Department from 1960 until 1965. We lived about a mile from the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. I had attended President Kennedy's inauguration in the bitter cold and later waited with the crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue to see the inaugural parade. On the day he was laid to rest, we stood on our front lawn solemnly counting the echoes of the twenty-one gun salute at Arlington.
Millions of Americans accompanied the First Lady and her children through each moment of the funeral. No one can forget John-John's farewell salute to his father, nor his mother's dignified grief behind her black veil. Television was the hearse that carried the president's body into the homes of America. Most people forget that in 1963, the national news was only on for fifteen minutes a night. Television stations signed off the air by eleven o'clock — but not the week of the assassination. America for the first time saw twenty-four hour news coverage. The nation was riveted by details of the murder. We were there...black and white images etched into America's consciousness forever.
Like most Americans, I struggled to understand what had really happened in Dealey Plaza...and why.
It is a little known fact that Kennedy detractors had circulated WANTED FOR TREASON posters throughout Dallas on the day of his visit. Kennedy's inexperience in foreign policy and his competence as a leader had been called into question due to his mishandling of the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs. Historians fault Kennedy's meddling in the planning, dithering in the decision-making, and other strategic errors for the abysmal failure of the invasion. His disastrous meeting with Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit led directly to the building of the Berlin Wall. As our country was brought to the brink of nuclear war, American children huddled beneath their school desks.
America was in crisis on the home front as well. Our country faced a crescendo of violence brought on by the civil rights movement, and many felt that Kennedy had not confronted the issue forcefully enough to quell the unrest. Kennedy was roundly criticized by major newspapers throughout the country. A popular riddle asked, 'If Bobby, Jack, and Teddy were all on a sinking boat, which would be saved?' Answer: 'The country.'
At 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963, all of these shortcomings were duly erased from the American psyche. Our society was riddled with guilt — providing fertile ground for the myth of Camelot to take root.
My father brought home a copy of the Warren Commission Report the day it was released. After he read the report, he gave it to me to read. I was only in the seventh grade, but the findings didn't seem plausible.
It didn't make sense to most Americans either. I remember questioning my father about the so-called Magic Bullet. His answer was simply that if the government investigation said that it happened that way, then that was the way it happened. End of story. As Americans, we trusted our government and our government leaders. Like my father had said, if the government said it was so, then it was so. It was not until years later that we realized we had been duped. We collectively lost our innocence by decade's end.
The Kennedys were an iconic American family. They were cultured and possessed an affinity for the arts. Many people had never heard of Pablo Casals until he played at a White House dinner. After his performance, sales of his recordings shot up overnight. Once America learned that Jack could read 1200 words a minute, speed-reading courses increased ten-fold. Jackie's loving commitment to her children was universally admired. The Kennedys permeated the culture and imagination of America.
In March of 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations officially declared, "...on the basis of the evidence available to it, President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. The committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy."
In other words, someone got away with murder...and we still long for closure.
Chuck Helppie is the author of the historical novel, KENNEDY MUST BE KILLED.
To learn more, visit www.kennedymustbekilled.com.