Kennedy, Camelot, and Touch Football

Posted on November 15, 2013


Today[to be published Sunday Nov. 24, 2013]—fifty years ago to the day, Sunday—the body of President John F. Kennedy was being prepared for his funeral tomorrow, Monday November 25, 1963.

I think I can speak for most Americans who are old enough to remember that we were all in shock from the events of the past two days, beginning with Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, in Dallas, Texas, in Dealey Plaza to be more specific.

I can remember walking out onto the main quadrangle at Duke where I was a senior sometime early in the afternoon to go play some touch football with a few friends. It was one of those glorious fall afternoons in the South, just cool enough to invigorate you and bring your senses alive.

“The President’s been shot,” someone yelled from inside the dorm which served as our fraternity “house” as we stepped outside to warm up a bit.

Ha, I thought, the jokesters are up to it again,

“Sure,” one of us joked back, “and the Third World War just began.”

Then we headed out of the Quad to some open field and forgot the silliness of someone saying such outrageous things. What an imagination these jokesters had.

After probably an hour or so later we headed back and it was eerily quiet in the Quadrangle as we passed dorms and fraternity houses—just ordinary dorms with a sign out front. No one was outside.

What’s going on? Could that jerk who claimed the President’s been shot been speaking the truth?

We went into our chapter room and plunked down, along with everyone else in the house it seemed, in front of the television set. No one said much.

It would be that way for much of the next two days, most or all of us glued to the television as the images of Dealey Plaza, the Texas Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald, then Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby amidst a swarm of Dallas detectives and policemen, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office on his flight back to the capital, Jackie Kennedy, still dressed in blood spattered clothes, numbed by husband’s assassination right almost in her very lap, looking on with a blank stare, we watched and we watched until we too were numbed by the circumstances. It was all horribly true, and as it unfolded I, like so many others, felt helpless to do anything.

By Sunday, desperate to somehow do something to break the chains of just being onlookers, three or four of us decided to drive up to Washington that night and watch the funeral cortege wend its way through the great avenues of the capital to the place of burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was the least we could do, and so we piled into someone’s car and headed north. It was just a gesture on our part, but one we felt compelled to make. I forget if one or more of us were in ROTC, but I was in NROTC, eventually headed off to the Navy as an Ensign after graduation, and being already a part of the military may have played a role in my going. I don’t remember. All I remember is, “well, we’re doing something other than sitting in front of that damn television like crows on a wire, doing nothing but watching.”

We arrived in the Washington area early in the morning, and slept for a few hours at the local Lambda Chi Alpha chapter house at the University of Maryland which the brothers there had opened to others like us, and then we headed downtown.

We ended up on the corner of 16th Street and one of the main avenues, Independence Avenue I think.

The parade route was lined with soldiers, and it was cold, and we pushed our way to the front as best we could.

The phalanx of world leaders in a line breast that stretched from one side of the street to the other left me—a history major and already with fascinated with how the world worked—almost breathless. There was the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, check by jowl with the tall, incredibly Gallic Charles de Gaulle, the hero of France during the Second World War. I spied Prince Philip of England and then the phalanx was gone and the President’s bier came down the avenue. I remember seeing Bobby Kennedy, maybe Jackie, and then it too was gone, turning right in front of us, headed to Arlington and history.

We headed back home to Durham, North Carolina that afternoon and evening, comforted, I suppose, by having done something, which was basically nothing more than to grieve openly like millions of other Americans in the face of a tragedy hard, if not impossible, for us to comprehend.

Over the years I have, like so many others, wrestled with how Oswald came to do this. Was there a conspiracy? More than one shooter? Did Fidel Castro get Kennedy before the Kennedy brothers bumped off the communist Cuban dictator whom they despised? Would Kennedy have pulled us out of Vietnam—as he was proposing to do—before that mire drew us into a war that my generation fought, and lost?

It was the end of “Camelot,” a term applied by journalists and political pundits to the “reign” of Jack Kennedy and his beautiful—and smart—people in Washington. Camelot of course remembers the ancient reign of King Arthur and his court of noble lords, knights and ladies who lived a life of charm, elegance, and devotion to high ideals.

That other, more worldly and even sordid details of Kennedy that surfaced after his death did not tarnish him significantly, other than reveal him as weak man morally who allowed the power of the Presidency of the most powerful nation on earth go to his head. That happens to some Presidents.

All this would come later. That fall weekend all of us grew up. The totally unreal and unacceptable—the assassination of the President—was real.

Perhaps that’s why I went to Washington that Sunday night with my friends to witness the funeral. It made it real for us. We were there, just some college age kids on the corner, but it made us witnesses to how deep and horrid the darkness of man can descend to.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News in column The Port Rail Sunday Nov. 24, 2013 as Nation Faced Surreal Tragedy in JFK’s Slaying

Posted in: History, Journal