Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering 1963

We’d only been living in northern New Jersey a little over two years on November 22, 1963. We were still getting accustomed to winter New Jersey style. I have no recollection of winters in Westchester County, New York, where I’d been born. I was no sooner born than my parents whisked us away to the sunny climes of southern California.

Mom hated L.A.  She hated all that sunshine, every single, gosh-darned day. She missed the Northeast springtime, the wildflowers growing all the woodland trails she hiked as a girl when the Bronx was still reasonably habitable, the lakes she swam in during the summers, and the blaze of autumn trees in the fall. She even missed the snowfalls. We have a picture of her and my father building a snowman outside the house apartment they rented on the Hudson.

We came back to the Northeast, not to the scenic Hudson River bungalow in which my parents and my older brother lived, but our very own house which my parents were able to buy with cash in Passaic County. I remember the climb s-curved Jeffrey drive and then up a dirt-road past houses still in frame mode. Palm trees still swayed in my head, but still, I came to love the huge oak trees (we named them after famous generals because, from their size, we estimated that they were acorns around General Washington’s time).

I came to love the gray rocks – a gray like no other color we’ve seen in no other part of the country. West Point gray. Our rocks and boulders run along the same vein. The skyscrapers that were built in Manhattan were built from stones in our local rock quarries. That day in November, 1963, the sun was in and out. When it was out, it was hidden behind clouds as gray as our rocks. 

Across the street from our house there’s a rent in the earth; one of those clefts that are part of the local fault system. Earthquakes are rare here, but when they occur on Knolls Road, it’s like being in a rock tumbler.

I was four on that November day. I was gazing out my bedroom, which faced the street, at those gray rocks, now unbarred by the fallen leaves (the leaves fell much earlier in those days. The cold weather came much earlier. You had to put on thermal undies in order to go out trick or treating in those days).

My mother was talking to her mother when the news about Kennedy’s assassination broke. My grandmother heard about it first, no doubt from my grandfather who had connections in the Navy. One of my mother’s cousins on Grandpa’s side was a doctor at Bethesda Naval Hospital at the time. At the moment, in fact.

My mother was just turning on the television and we both heard a cry out in the street. The housewives from the neighboring homes had burst out of their doors and into the middle of the streets, crying. They fell into one another’s arms. My mother came to the door, her eyes popping open at the sight. She glanced up at me and signaled for me to come away from the window, then went inside.

My mother was older than they were and frankly, no fan of Kennedy’s. Still, it was a shock. My parents didn’t celebrate, either. They thought it was shocking that someone would kill the President of the United States, no matter what you thought of his politics (or his wife’s snobbery, which was a thing well-known before the assassination and her widowhood).

We didn’t realize what a very tall man Kennedy was until some friends of ours, also in the neighborhood and also tall people, showed us a picture of them with Kennedy. He towered over them and they were huge Hollanders. The only “good” thing about Kennedy’s death, to my four year-old mind, was that my mother said the schools would be letting out and that my older brother would be coming home. I’d have someone to play with. Hurray!

Five years later, my mother’s cousin sent his copies of the Bethesda autopsy to my grandfather for safe-keeping. We figured something was up and that he sent them to Grandpa so they wouldn’t be destroyed. My younger brother wasn’t interested. But at nine, I understood. I remembered that day in 1963.

They were gruesome photos. Kennedy stared up at me, stark, unblinking, lifeless. There were his bloodied business shirt and tie. Notes Mom’s cousin made. There, too, were the dreadful shots of the back of the head, nauseating “before” and “after” photos. Unless there was a mysterious gunmen hidden away in the trunk of the limo, or Jackie herself blew him away, it looked like the man was shot from the front.

The autopsy report was put away and never seen again. No one knows what happened to it. One of our relatives got hold of them and sold them probably. In any case, they’re available now for the whole world to see.

For my part, as exploitative as they were (they say Kennedy was responsible for all those photo-op shots of his kids, not Jackie, and that makes sense), I’d much rather look at the Kennedy photo-op shots than the Kenney autopsy shots. It seems like people are forgetting. Most people would rather forget, particularly his family, because they loved him, his foes, because they hated him, and his fans, because they voted for him.

But we really shouldn’t forget that it was a heinous crime, whether we liked him or not. It’s just not the way we do things here in America.


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