Fifty years ago, my friends and I spent the evening as we always did. It was Thursday, November 21, 1963 and after dinner, we would all go to the Boys Club to spend the evening playing pool, trying to shoot hoops, or watching TV in the TV room. We were, as usual, lost in our own little teenaged worlds.... telling stories.. some of them true, thinking that we were kings of the world. Safe and secure, never thinking anything could change it. Not thinking about tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
As we left the club on the cold November night, we made plans to meet the next day. Freddy, Sammy and I would cut school and hang out, waiting for Donnie, George, and Bobby to get out, so that we could all hang out at San Filis Pizza parlor. Little did we know that the events of the next four days would change our lives and turn our whole world on it's ear.
The 22nd dawned bright and cold. My mother shook me awake to make sure that I had breakfast and got out the door on time. "Make sure you go to school and work hard" she said as I ate my cold cereal and stared morosely into space. "Yeah, ma.. Ok, I will.. whatever.." I was a moody teenager and I hated school. I had other things on my mind.
Out the door I went. I caught the bus on main street and, after transferring once, I arrived at the High School. I waited until I was late, then signed in at the office. This checked me in for the day, and enabled me to leave and not be caught.
I stopped in at the diner for coffee, killing time until Fred, Sam and I could meet up. Around 10:00 AM, I made my way to Fred's. Sam was already there, so we sat and talked and listened to 77 WABC and the latest music, as the minutes in the President's life counted down.
At approximately 01:35 Eastern Standard Time, a bulletin interrupted the song that was playing on the radio. I don't remember what it was, and it doesn't matter now. The announcement said that shots had been fired at the Presidential motorcade. The motorcade then sped up. Details were sketchy. They returned to the music. Thirty seconds later, they broke in again to say that the President had been shot, but there was no news yet as to how seriously. The motorcade was going to Parkland Hospital. The details were slow in coming. At one point, the reporter said that two priests had stopped to speak to the press as they left the hospital and they said that President Kennedy had died. A short time later, the official word came over that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our vibrant, young President, had been assassinated.
We were dumb-struck. This was something that got through to us. We left Fred's house to go meet the other guys and some of the girls, as they got out of school. Someone suggested that we go to Blessed Sacrament Church. We all did... even those who were not Catholic. We sat in stunned silence. There were a lot of people who had come to say a prayer. You could hear the sobs of some of them as they knelt and said prayers. I felt a wetness on my cheeks and wiped away the reluctant tears that had found their way there. I couldn't let anyone see me crying... it wasn't cool! Yet, I saw grown men and women openly weeping. This mad act had hit at the very heart of the American People as a whole.
We left the church and drifted home. I watched as Lyndon B Johnson took the oath of office and then addressed the nation from the tarmac. His words still resonate down through the years "This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep, personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best; that is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's"
I will never forget the sound of his voice, or the impact of those words until my dying day. I passed through the next three days like a zombie. I felt empty and drained; I had never felt like this before, not even when my grandparents died. I watched as Oswald was gunned down and felt a momentary satisfaction. This would pass quickly as the realization set in that this would prevent us from knowing the whole truth of the assassination and the events that led up to it.
Watching the funeral on Monday, I wept openly. My youth was gone forever. The harsh reality of the cold, hard world started to sink in.
We tried, over the next few years, to get back some of the innocence lost on that cold November day, but somehow, it always seemed different after that. Soon came the drumbeat of war, and we watched as the first of our friends were swept up in the conflagration of the Vietnam War. We watched as Buddhist Monks set themselves on fire in protest against the repressive regimes that ran that country, one after another. We grieved over friends who were cut down in their prime in a war that was a lost cause. I joined the Marine Corps, Fred joined the Air Force.
The civil rights movement took hold, finally. The calls for an end to segregation and equal rights for all got louder, and soon the marches and the protests started to crack the resolve of the segregationists. Not, however, without high costs.. Martin Luther King was killed in the cause of equality for all. Robert F. Kennedy was killed by another madman, because of his support of Israel. Through it all, the war raged on. Johnson declined to run for re-election. Nixon claimed that he had a 'Secret Plan' to end the war. Watergate happened. Kissinger said 'Peace is at hand'.. the war dragged on for two more years before it finally ended. Nixon resigned, and the country moved on.
Now, I'm an old man. I look sadly at those years, and think of what might have been. I can only pray that, someday, we as a people, will learn a lesson from all of this. That the time will come when there will be no more war. That people will finally treat each other with respect and acceptance, regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity.
I look back across the years to President Kennedy and wish that things could have been different.. that he could have lived and perhaps changed the world. Johnson pushed through Civil Rights and Medicare, but he will long be remembered, not for those accomplishments, but for the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy will always be remembered for the assassination, and for the bright hopes and dreams that he embodied, for what might have been. All I can tell you is that those days changed me forever.
My thoughts jump around, as do the words on this page. Terrible events will do that to you.
John Zaffino November 21, 2013
It has been a very long day for me. I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that fifty years have passed since President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. Every year, the events of that day come back to me and rip open the wound on my soul that this event left. It was the first of several that would follow. To me, and to many who remember his vigor and his love of freedom, he will always be a shining symbol; not because of what he had accomplished, but because of what he challenged us, as citizens of the world, to aspire to, and the bright promise of what might have been. He served only 1,036 days, but in that short period of time, he managed to inspire countless numbers of American youth. When he spoke, his words made you take notice. He is the reason that I volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps, rather than see if I would be drafted. Years from now, when he is a distant memory, and those of us who were alive during his time are gone, I hope that historians remember not only what he accomplished as President, but also how he inspired young people, and what might have been.
In any event, one can only hope that the hopes and dreams that he inspired in people like me will some day come to pass. Peace and Love to all.
John Zaffino, November 22, 2013