I remember vividly that it was a Friday, because we were in the auditorium of P.S. 270 on Emerson Pl. in Bedford-Stuyvesant watching cartoons and serials the way we did every Friday. I was nine on November 22, 1963. It could have been a Silly Symphony
or a Sgt. Preston of the Yukon or possibly even a Flash Gordon, but right in the middle the film stopped with that abrupt sound like when you used your fingers to stop a phonograph record. The light went on and an announcement came over the P.A. for the teachers to take us back to our classrooms in an orderly fashion.
We grumbled and complained and squinted our eyes in the sudden brightness, but we lined up and followed our teacher back to our classroom. Some teachers were running through the hallways crying or had red eyes and looked scared, I wondered if the nuclear war had come.
The year before we thought there would be a nuclear war when my first grade teacher suddenly had to leave to go to Florida with her husband who was in the Army. We were going to fight a place called Cuba, and maybe the Russians. We’d been warned about the Russians. Maybe it was happening all over again, and maybe all the teachers had to go this time and that’s why they were all sad and crying.
We got to our classroom and sat down as instructed.
“The principal is going to make an announcement.” Was all our teacher would tell us as she wiped at her eyes. We were scared and confused. It was late afternoon, almost dismissal time.
The principal started speaking over the P.A., I don’t remember his exact words but I do remember that he said the President had been shot and killed in a place called Dallas at 2 P.M.
As were heard his words our teacher broke into uncontrollable sobs, and we collectively started crying.
I cried because she was crying, at the age of 9 I don’t even think I knew who the president was or what he looked like, but emotion can be contagious when you are young. Shortly after we were told to put on our coats and line up for an early dismissal. We were led out into the schoolyard to wait for our parents to come for us, and to our amazement, most parents were already waiting outside.
My mother was crying, she loved President Kennedy, but when my dad came home from work, all he said was “He was a politician, and politicians get assassinated all of the time.” He did not cry. I guess if you grow up in Mexico you get used to political killings.
This past week there were all kinds of TV shows commemorating the event, shows about Kennedy, shows about Oswald. There have been a slew of newspaper and magazine articles as well, and I’ve read a lot of them.
I don’t know why my fascination with this event is so strong, perhaps because it was the beginning of the end of my childhood innocence, or because it was my first collective experience as an American, but it is there, and I was immersed in it for the past week.
I never bought into the conspiracy theories, in my experience most of the people I’ve known (and know) who ascribe to conspiracies are people desperate to blame all others for their own shortcomings. I read the Jim Garrison book at some point, and a bunch of other stuff, the fictional Winter Kills, and books and movies I can’t even remember. I can’t remember because it just isn’t convincing. What they all suppose is that life and what happens in it is all neatly scripted and orchestrated by some all-knowing omniscient evil being bent on destroying us all. But in my 59 years I’ve found life is anything but that. Life is not neatly wrapped up in a bow, life is sloppy, random, and unpredictable, and sometimes unexplainable.
Oswald killed Kennedy because he was a small man filled with hatred and desperate to prove to himself that he somehow mattered in the world. In the end it seems very banal, but that’s what most of life is, banal.
There was a book by a woman named Hannah Arendt called Eichmann In Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil, I’ve never read it, but I understand what she meant. Remarkably, it was written in 1963. It’s like in Occam’s razor- the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and it really doesn’t matter anyway, does it?