A child’s first plane flight these days is about as much of a landmark event as that first elevator ride or an initial expedition to the dry cleaner. But things were different in the early 1960s, when air travel still had a whiff of glamor and most passengers were either wealthy or traveling on business.
I was 16 years old when I boarded my first airplane on a frosty Sunday morning in November 1963, two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A close high school friend, Wally Marcus, and I flew from New York to Washington to bear witness — to mourn the slain president by viewing his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the Capitol.
It was a journey that had begun for me when I stood along the railroad tracks in Connecticut, three days before the 1960 election, cheering the youthful senator from Massachusetts who would go on to win that race by a whisper over Republican Richard Nixon. We were going to honor the president who had guided the nation through the harrowing 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis without a bomb falling or a shot fired.
But these were partial explanations. There was something else I did not confide to my parents as I wangled permission to go to Washington for JFK’s funeral. It is something that remains hard to explain 50 years later, in a different world and a transformed media environment.
I could not endure the claustrophobia of sitting home with the television tuned to CBS hour after hour, numb with grief yet impatient with hearing the same solemn banalities endlessly repeated. I felt like I could not be a passive consumer of television’s first attempt to create the modern rituals of mourning in America.
The printed word provided no refuge during those first hours after the assassination. Empowered by my new driver’s license, I borrowed the family car to go to a local newsstand and buy all the New York papers in hopes that somehow — in some alternative world of print — those fatal shots had never been fired in Dallas. Instead, what I remember is the elderly news vendor, somebody whom I had barely noticed in the past, weeping over the death of his president and my president.
Memory can be an elusive thing after a half-century. I have a series of kaleidoscopic images from my two days in Washington, but there are inevitable narrative gaps. So I've pieced things together from both 1963 newspaper clips and a phone conversation with my boyhood friend Wally, who now is a judge on an Arizona Indian reservation after a career as a Connecticut attorney.
Wally and I were picked up at Washington National Airport by a well-placed cousin, who had agreed to take us in. The cousin worked for the U.S. Information Agency and had recently served in Iran. In hindsight, it seems evident that he was a spook.
He was our chauffeur on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963. Around noon, he dropped us off to wait on Constitution Avenue for the military procession that would carry Kennedy’s casket from the White House to the Capitol.
With no outdoor television sets, let alone smartphones and other 21st-century technology, we never saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live television. Instead, Wally and I heard it as a bizarre rumor as it circulated through the crowd around us. There was a dreamlike hall-of-mirrors recognition that, as we waited for the body of the martyred president, his accused assassin had also been gunned down in Dallas.
As the military procession passed in front of us on Constitution Avenue, the muffled drums were drowned out by a sound like thousands of crickets. Fellow mourners clicked away on their Kodaks, their Nikons and their Bell & Howell movie cameras. Kennedy, our first modern president, had in death created one of the first moments when the rituals of grief now included a souvenir photograph.
According to newspaper reports, we were among the quarter-million Americans who filed slowly into the Capitol to pay homage. Political leaders from Nixon to Adlai Stevenson were allowed quick entry into the building's rotunda, where the slain president lay in state. But like everyone else, we waited on line for five hours in the bitter cold (occasionally pausing in our grief to flirt with teenage girls) to be allowed 30 seconds of communion before Kennedy’s bier.
The next morning, aided by USIA’s offices being located less than two blocks from the White House, we were again in place for the last public moment of Kennedy’s journey. What I remember most was the long line of world leaders, who had flown to Washington for the funeral, walking behind the horse-drawn caisson as it moved from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral for the requiem Mass. The image that endures was towering French President Charles de Gaulle walking next to the diminutive Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie.
That afternoon we took the train north toward home.
Thinking back on that time — and also conjuring up my 16-year-old self — what shines through is how little cynicism there was in America. It is wrong to call it an innocent time, since the threat of nuclear war and life ending with a mushroom cloud was omnipresent. But even for adults who had seen horrors during World War II, there was an abiding conviction that bad things — like assassination and terrorist attacks — did not happen on U.S. soil. We thought ourselves immune to the convulsions of the world.
It was a naïve thought — one that died in Dallas and the jungles of Vietnam. Obviously, even in 1963, American life was less a fairy tale if you were African-American or poor or, in many cases, a woman with ambition. But there was a sense that America was a protected place, an Eden where presidents faced no real risk waving to the crowds from an open convertible.
These days, I wonder how many of those 250,000 grief-struck Americans who bowed their heads before Kennedy’s coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol are still alive. But I was there. I was there when the torch was passed to a forever-sadder generation.