WEEKEND OF SADNESS / LATE NOVEMBER 1963
It’s been 50 years. Truthfully, it does feel like a long time ago. My Kennedy fascination began in New England. I cast my first presidential vote by absentee ballot from Bedford, Massachusetts. The Presidential Debates swung me. Before the debates, I leaned toward Nixon. He seemed so savvy and handsome Kennedy looked like what many people called him- the Playboy Senator. Nixon won the first debate. Then, after the second debate, I wasn’t sure because Kennedy, not just a pretty face, came on strong, and after the last debate I checked Kennedy on my absentee ballot. Lucky for my mother. She kept her job as a Democratic poll watcher. They opened my absentee ballot at the voting site in Philadelphia in front of the Democratic committeeman who hired her as a poll worker.
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JFK wrong-footed his first decision. The bungled Bay of Pigs invasion made him look incompetent. On my week-end job, sexual jokes about JFK’s manliness spread through the caddy shack at Merion Golf Course. Kennedy gave approval to use the White House in filming Seven Days in May in case the military and the C.I.A. decided new leadership would be welcome by the American people.
Fortunately for Kennedy, his adversary in the Kremlin, who thought he faced a weak adversary misplayed his Cuban card, and The Cuban Missile Crises became JFK’s defining moment. I listened to the best Presidential address I had ever heard, and fully supported the President while mistakenly thinking the U.S. had a missile gap compared with the Soviet Union. Kennedy interdiction on the high seas caused the Red Army and the Politburo to dump Khrushchev.
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Fast forward. It’s Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. My afternoon had been planned. I would be leaving the Commonwealth’s high-rise Philadelphia Office building at Broad and Spring Garden Streets before 1:30 to visit Public Assistance recipients. Our Deputy Director made the announcement.
“President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. He’s dead. That’s all we know.”
She didn’t tell us to go home. I looked around for my favorite Baptist minister, Rev. William Powell for his insight. He wasn’t at his desk. A few minutes later, I left the office with a heavy heart. Governor Scranton’s administration didn’t have a protocol for the assassination of a president. Close to 2 p.m. I walked on Spring Garden Street past the pharmaceutical giant, S.K.F.’s facility at 15th and Spring Garden. Other than the drug giant, in the light Spring Garden wasn’t a busy street. Most of the brownstone four story dwellings lining both sides of Spring Garden had been split into rooming houses and small apartments for welfare recipients. I planned on making three stops that afternoon. The welfare mothers would be home. They didn’t have nannies. Why would this Friday be any different?
When I reached the first apartment I took out my notebook. I had the questions in my head. I’d see the children who were not of school age, check the rent receipts, and sit with the mother for a few minutes. I preferred the kitchen table where I could see the roaches if there were any.
Inside the first apartment, I’d call it a coffee klatch if it were a white suburban neighborhood. The welfare mothers gathered. Collective fear had set-in. Tears flowed, and anxieties surfaced. I remember what they said.
“I loved President Kennedy. He cared about us.”
“God, I hope a black man didn’t do it.’
“They’ll cut our checks off if the killer is black.”
I didn’t ask my questions. The mothers were emotional wrecks. They knew that Johnson was now the President- a Southerner they had mixed feelings about. I didn’t know much about LBJ. Without verifying their continued eligibility for Aid to Dependent Children I left. Kennedy’s death sunk-in.
I walked down Spring Garden Street to the District’s 4th floor office. The high-rise State Office building had almost cleared out. There were only a handful of people in the office when I came back at 3:30.
I took the subway to Market Street and the El to 69th Street. A stillness had settled over Philadelphia. I walked from the terminal to my parents’ home in Upper Darby.
At home in front of the T.V. I saw Dan Rather for the first time. He seemed to be on top of everything. At first, Dan Rather reported on the murder of Officer Tippet - a tragic aside during a bad day in Dallas, and then, as the darkness covered Southeastern Pennsylvania, the puzzle pieces meshed. Dallas police arrested a man in a movie theatre. For the first time America heard the name, Lee Harvey Oswald who had been arrested inside a movie theatre in connection with the Tippet’s murder.
Dan Rather didn’t stop. As this American sat glued to the T.V. screen throughout the evening, I don’t remember what my parents or my sister, Margie said. Collective shock had set in.
As the night went on, Rather tied together threads of information beginning with the rifle from the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository, Oswald’s connection with the Book Depository, details of Tippet’s killing, and Oswald’s overseas adventure. No one wanted to panic the American people. Who was Oswald? They down played the Soviet Union when the details of Oswald’s unhappy life filtered through the T.V. screen.
As expected, at 7 p.m. Oswald was charged with Officer Tippet’s murder. Dan Rather reported it. Mentioning a possible connection to the Kennedy assassination Rather keeps me glued to the screen. Before I went to bed Oswald was charged with the murder of the President. More bits and pieces- Oswald has a Russian wife, he’s lived in the Soviet Union, worked at the Texas Book Depository, and he had been a U. S. marine. The speculation about the Soviet Union increased. I didn’t buy it. As angry as the Soviet Union might have been about the Cuban Missile crises, I couldn’t see Moscow hiring Oswald to kill the President.
Saturday was a blur. Glued to the T.V., I studied for my graduate course at Temple University in International Politics. Saturday night at the Overbrook Tavern, a few of us decided to go to the Eagles Redskins game on Sunday.
On Sunday morning after Mass, I watched as Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby. “Jack, you crazy son of a b----.” I heard that statement until they filtered what the Dallas Police Officer said out of future broadcasts. Nothing made sense. The details on Jack Ruby made no sense. How did he get so close to Oswald? What was he doing inside the police station?
The Eagles game at Franklin Field had its own off-field drama. Ben Scotti, an Eagles’ defensive back didn’t play. The locker room attendants circulated the story. Scotti loved Kennedy. At least one other teammate, a lineman, didn’t share his passion. An argument ensued. Cooler heads prevailed. The lineman went to the cigarette machine (this was 1963) and Scotti attacked him from the backside and drove his head into the glass. The lineman retaliated and put Scotti out of the game. The miserable two win Eagles weren’t one big happy family.
It’s strange that we still don’t really know how or why it happened. Jack Ruby took care of that. Senator Spector, as a young man, made a name for himself on the Warren Commission. Books continue to be written about that Friday in Dallas. I still think that Kennedy handling of the missile crises averted World War III.