FORTY YEARS AGO
22 November 2003
We were all geared up for the Big Game. Cal v. Stanford, the biggest event of the school year for both schools (I saw a story yesterday about "The Play" -- remember "the play"? Where the Stanford Band ran onto the field too early and cost the school the win for that year? -- it's being called "the most memorable play in college football history.")
I had left school by then, but worked for the University and of course would be at the Stanford stadium to cheer Berkeley on to victory.
I was working for the Physics Department and had my own office, where I worked alone, but across the hall from the shipping department. I had a radio behind my desk, but it was turned off on that day.
Suddenly, someone came running down the hall, poked her head into my office and breathlessly announced "someone has shot the president!"
Shot the president? Surely she was mistaken. Kennedy had just visited UC Berkeley weeks before, giving an impassioned speech at the Greek Theatre, inspiring all of us to join the Peace Corps. I hadn't gone to the speech, but was in the parking lot of the Newman Center when his car drove right past--the handsome young president, in a convertible (can you imagine such a thing now?) who turned and waved at the group of us in the parking lot. How could he have been shot?
I turned the radio on just as they were announcing the death of John F. Kennedy.
I went across the hall and into the shipping department. "He's dead!" I said.
"He's NOT," a co-worker screamed at me. She was listening to a different station and she was clinging to a shred of hope that the station I had listened to was wrong.
Nobody could work and so I just closed up my office and walked home.
LeConte Hall is directly behind the campanile, that tall tower that marks the center of the Berkeley campus (or did at one time, before it started to expand).
The plaza around the campanile is normally a beehive of activity, and the thing I remember most clearly is the stillness. There was no hustle and bustle. As I walked down the steps to the plaza, there were clumps of people standing all over the place...and I didn't hear a sound. It was as if the entire campus had gone into shock.
TV was not as pervasive as it has become. You didn't have 24 hour news coverage, talking heads, and up close and personal interviews. Kennedy's assassination changed the face of television forever.
I had a small black and white TV in my apartment and I sat in front of it--or in front of someone else's TV--all weekend. We were hypnotized by the unfolding drama on our screens. It was the first time we’d ever experienced watching history live before our eyes.
We gathered in groups. Nobody wanted to be alone. It was the nation's tragedy and we needed to mourn together.
On Sunday, we went to Mass and then to breakfast (even in times of national tragedy, The Pancake Queen could not be ignored).
We were driving home, down Telegraph Avenue, with the radio on. It was there that we heard of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Shock upon shock.
Throughout the weekend, we watched the now-famous scenes unfolding. Mrs. Kennedy kissing her husband’s coffin, John-John’s famous salute, the riderless horse with the drum cadence beating relentlessly. We watched the world leaders walk to Arlington Cemetery, watched the eternal flame being lit.
The following weekend, we went to Stanford for the Big Game. It seemed wrong, somehow, to be getting back to normal, to be doing normal things. The Cal Bears understood that better than the Stanford team, as the Bears were still in mourning, while Stanford could think only of the game (yeah..yeah...Stanford won...). At half time, instead of the usual silly show, there was a dignified salute to Kennedy and an attempt to raise the spirit of American togetherness in this time of tragedy.
Something died in our country on November 22, 1963. Kennedy’s reputation has been tarnished in these post-Watergate, post-Lewinsky days when respect for the presidency seems to have gone by the wayside.
A few years ago, Walt and I and my mother were in Hyannis Port with Jeri, looking at fall color and just doing some touring. In Hyannis Port there is a Kennedy memorial, which we visited. Jeri told me that her generation has a difficult time understanding the reverence for Kennedy, or indeed for any of the presidents before JFK. Her generation looks with suspicion on the country’s leaders, and can’t even imagine the kind of respect and awe that we had when I was growing up.
I feel sad that our children have lost something special. Maybe full disclosure is a good thing, and maybe I prefer to live with my head in the sand, but I personally would like to return to the simpler days when we innocently believed that our leaders were something larger than life and above reproach.