JFK died fifty years ago today, as the surge of related content on TV and in the news has probably reminded you. Very few moments in American history have captured our imaginations so completely over the years.

Last weekend I spent some time with my dad, age 62, and he went through his story of where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news. There are people in the world who don't like hearing older people tell stories like this. I am not one of them. Informal oral history is more interesting than anything I can read in a book or see on TV in yet another interview from the archives with Walter Cronkite. I know some of you are over fifty. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments. The media keep telling us that everyone remembers where they were when it happened, and how could the media have such a pervasive trope if it wasn't true?

Not having lived through it, I have nothing to remember. Part of the reason I think it fascinates people, though, is the 8mm eeriness of the Zapruder film. It's less like a document of a historical event than a clip from an early John Carpenter horror movie. It doesn't matter how many times it gets replayed – and certainly most Americans have seen it dozens if not hundreds of times already – it's never any less arresting. Every time the limo rolls into view in semi-slow motion I'm like, "Oh shit, man…you should duck…"

And he never does.

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58 Responses to “NPF: ORAL HISTORY”

  1. Fernando_G Says:

    I was 7 years old and lived in Mexico at the time.

    Now, Mexico has had a tumultuous history with the US, and no US president ever has been liked…… with the exception of Kennedy. He was not only liked, he was loved.
    When he was shot, people were crying their eyes out.

  2. MS Says:

    The most important thing about the JFK assassination is to remember it is ancient history.

    Julius Caesar. Archduke Ferdinand. Abraham Lincoln. John Kennedy.

    The deaths of all of these people are equally far in the past for the vast majority of the population.

  3. mcm Says:

    Thank you for the chance to tell this. It's not remarkable, I'm afraid. I was 10, in fifth grade at an as-yet-unintegrated school in a small town in northwest Georgia. I had library duty with another girl that day, which meant we had to stay and straighten up things after our class had been to the library.

    We went back to class and our teacher was crying, along with some of the students. Someone told us the president had been shot. Somehow a TV appeared in our room, which we watched for a while. I remember feeling shocked. I think I remember one kid trying to make a joke, but I'm not sure. It was the South, of course, where Kennedy was hated, so it wouldn't have been a surprise.

    It seems like they let school out early. I'm not sure. I remember the feelings more than the specific details. I do remember my mother was sad when she picked me up that day. My parents had voted for Nixon, but they both seemed horrified by this.

    We watched TV all weekend. I remember how odd that seemed, in a way. We watched a lot of TV, but this was different. I sensed, I think, even as a child, that the whole country was watching with us.

    I have a memory of watching live Sunday when Oswald was shot. I wonder sometimes if I really did, because that image of Ruby pushing toward Oswald and the grimace on Oswald's face is so familiar, but in my memory, I'm alone in our den watching, and I yell to my parents in the other room that somebody shot Oswald.

    As imprecise as our memories are, it makes me wonder about how much our modern memories have been shaped by media images.

    My dad became an assassination buff, grabbing the Warren Report as soon as it came out and reading anything else he could get his hands on. I remembered talking about the evidence with him. I still find myself drawn into the TV shows and books about it. I don't believe there was another shooter and I doubt there was a conspiracy, but it's a puzzlement.

    I agree with Nora Carrington, it didn't stop after that. It felt like we got on some kind of crazy roller coaster. Death after death. But I was also growing up, anyway, and starting to realize that bad things really did happen.

    My parents always remembered where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor —riding around in my Dad's car on a Sunday afternoon on a date. But they're gone now, along with many of their generation, and we don't think about Pearl Harbor Day much anymore.

  4. don Says:

    I was 8 years old and living in Wyoming (Yellowstone; my dad was a National Park ranger). School stopped, the teacher said the President had ben shot and we were to all go home. I had two brothers living at home at the time, but I don't even remember them being in the living room; maybe they went out to play. I sat on the living room floor working on my bleach bottle piggy bank, a school art class project, while my mom sat and watched the television set in dead silence. (The next time I remember either of my folks watching tv with such attention was the moon landing.) That day and in the days following, I don't remember them, or any adult, being specifically grieved that this specific President had been murdered – instead it felt like a betrayal of order, after which nothing was certain or safe or trusted. Or so I think now, but who knows? I know we got sent home, I know my mom watched the tv. The picture was grainy and bad, and I made my piggy bank. Everything else has been so endlessly analyzed and commemorated and rebroadcast that I don't know what else is actually my own experience.

    But here's something that Life magazine never polluted my memory with: A year or two earlier we were living in Yosemite when Kennedy came to visit; it was a huge event for all of us residents and that's really my first memory of the world at large. (We were wilderness children, and back then it was very easy to live out of range; I didn't know there were three tv networks until around 1966.) It seemed like the whole of Yosemite Valley assembled in Sunday clothes in a field, in a vast circle around the helicopter as it landed; Kennedy got out and went around the circle greeting people and saying whatever politicians say. There's a picture of me in my white shirt and tie looking up in rapt adoration at him, just before he shook my hand. Many many years later (speaking of the "catting around") my dad told me he'd been one of the park rangers assigned to the ad-hoc Presidential Corridor at the Ahwahnee Hotel that night, and very much to his shocked distaste, a woman was escorted to Kennedy's room, and was not escorted out again until morning. I think he was most offended that the Secret Service – fellow government employees – appeared to consider this a routine and acceptable job function.

  5. eau Says:

    Far too young, and Australian to boot, don't have much to offer. I do remember my dad, who is not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch, talking about it years later with a group of friends. Young me was shocked to hear agreement around the table that the 'old guard' had shown the 'new guard' what happens when you try to change 'things' too fast. I asked what was meant by that, and got some 'you'll understand when you're older'. Post-RFK, MLK, post-Clinton/Starr, watching Obama tread water in office, I think I understand a little better.

  6. Ursula Says:

    I feel the same as ellie about how we've changed in our potential response to political assasinations. I can't see the Bachmanns or Cruzes of the country to have enough honor in a situation like that if it happened now or with a future Democratic president.

    Then I think about how I would have reacted to an assasination of the previous pres., and know that the only negative emotion I could have had would have been absolute terror about President Cheney.

    I have a 9/11 story, was a sophomore in college and wathing TV before getting ready for class, blah blah blah, but the real death of hope for me in this century (until brief moments when Obama was elected and re-elected) was Wellstone's death 11 years ago. I felt like I was living in some horrible dream world for at least a week after.

  7. Anonymouse Says:

    What's scary is that the rwnj's are threatening Obama's life regularly. That poor man is in real danger of being assassinated.

  8. Scott Says:

    I was a senior in High School. Don't remember how we got the news, perhaps through the school's PA system, but I do remember that there was a bit of a panic. Rumors about this being the precursor to a Russian invasion, and similar craziness.

    My clearest memory is of one of the administrators walking up and down the halls, corralling small groups of students, and assuring them that the vice president would take over, the government would not collapse and that we shouldn't worry.

    Two days later I was driving somewhere, probably to church, alone in the car, when I heard Oswald's murder live on the radio. Nothing like this three days had happened in my lifetime (I was born after WWII, and Viet Nam hadn't really started yet) and I remember pulling over to the side of the road, shaken by the feeling that the world was flying apart.