I graduated from high school in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1963 with every intention of continuing my education. Instead, however, I found myself living in Dallas at 18 and working as a clerk in one of the downtown office towers that dominated the city's landscape.
My existence was fairly functional and my days flowed by without much fanfare. However, one bright, beautiful morning in late November, that was about to change. The President was coming to town.
Around 11:30 a.m. that Friday, the entire staff in my office high-rise hurriedly evacuated the building. No one wanted to miss the show. I made my way over to where crowds of people were assembling on either side of the corridor through which the presidential motorcade was to travel. Being small in stature, I snaked my way to the front so I could have an unimpeded view.
With a little time to kill while waiting for the president's car to arrive, I quickly scanned the crowds to see what kind of reception this liberal, Roman Catholic president would receive in this right-of-centre, Republican, Southern Baptist bastion. Amazingly, what I saw was nothing but eager faces glowing with anticipation. It was as if, politics be damned, everyone knew we were about to witness American royalty.
Suddenly a huge roar went up at the other end of the street and rushed like a wave toward the spot where I was waiting. As the presidential limo approached, I realized I was standing on the side of the car where Jackie Kennedy was sitting. As I watched, she craned her neck upward and waved at the few people watching from windows high above her.
I wondered why she was ignoring the wildly cheering crowd not more than arm's length away. But then I remembered I had read somewhere that John Kennedy had used the word "fey" to describe his wife. That explained a lot. In any case, the woman was a stunner. I was particularly struck by the fact that the shade of her lipstick was an identical match to the shade of pink of her pillbox hat.
But seconds were slipping away. I shifted my focus to the president. The first thing I noticed was that he was tanned and projected an air of vitality. The second thing I noticed was how handsome he was - much more so than on television. And, unlike his wife, President Kennedy was looking at eye level at the hundreds cheering him as the slow procession moved up the street. He continually turned his body from right to left so he could engage with as many people as possible. And he was smiling - really smiling - from the heart and not just the face. I knew that I was looking at a man who was thoroughly enjoying himself. President Kennedy was having fun.
Then his car continued past me and he was gone. It all felt like a dream - a happy, lovely dream. But it was time to go back to work.
I had just arrived at my office building when I noticed a commotion at a co-worker's desk. Several people were huddled around a tiny transistor radio. They looked stricken, so I moved in closer to hear what was going on. The news was one explosive shock after another. "The president has been shot." "The president has been taken to Parkland Hospital."
This last bit of information was almost as startling to me as the fact that he had been shot. Once, as a teenager, I had been a candy striper at Parkland and I saw first-hand how filthy and chaotic the place was. I remember, for example, that if I was sent by medical personnel to another floor, I literally held my breath as I raced up and down the stairwells to avoid inhaling the fetid air. I saw written surgical reports that were blood-spattered and I overheard interns making disrespectful comments about patients. And this was where the ambulance was taking the leader of the free world?
It didn't make any sense. Nothing made any sense. And then, finally, the announcement: "President Kennedy has died." I couldn't believe it. Hadn't I just seen him half an hour ago? Wasn't he alive? And not just alive, but intensely alive? And now he's dead?
What did he do to deserve this?
We were told to go home. Silently, we scattered. Somehow I found my bus, climbed aboard and took a window seat. As we rolled along, I stared vacantly at the passing scenery. I saw men and women of all ages standing around like statues - frozen in place by paralyzing grief. Some were weeping. After a while, I looked away.
Dallas had become a death zone.
It's hard to believe it all happened 47 years ago. There are probably few of us around today who so intimately felt the impact of this cataclysmic event. And so the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination may not have the power to affect that it once did.
Every Nov. 22 since 1963, I have stopped to think about the slain President and tried to honour his memory - out of respect and, yes, even affection. JFK wasn't a particularly great president. He had flaws, both personal and public. But what I saw on that infamous, unspeakably sad day had nothing to do with politics or posturing or promises he was denied the opportunity to fulfill.
What I saw was his humanity. And it touched my heart. It still does today.
Bev Bachmann lives in Mississauga, Ont.
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