It was like the second shot heard ‘round the world. Actually, the third. The first, according to a famous Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, triggered the American Revolution. Arguably, the second took place with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865.
The last shot happened 50 years ago this week, on Nov. 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy was riding in a motorcade in Dallas when a lone gunman – or a group, depending on what you believe – gunned him down.
What that third shot did was kill a country, or least its spirit. If we weren’t already aware of it, the shooting shocked us into seeing the reality of how unsafe we all are. If the President of the United States could be gunned down in the street, who was safe?
Those of us who are old enough remember where we where when we heard the news. I was in grade school at the time. It was Friday afternoon, right after lunch. A teacher came into our classroom and whispered something to our teacher, who suddenly began to cry. Without giving us a reason, she told us school was over and we could go home. Excited, we filed out without asking any questions.
I overheard an older boy say that Kennedy had been shot, which I didn’t believe. If it was that big a deal, I reasoned, our teacher would have told us. It wasn’t until I got home and saw Walter Cronkite fighting to hold back his emotions that I realized it was true. More confused than anything, I was too young to quite grasp what it all meant. All I knew was the president wasn’t supposed to get shot, especially not a young, glamorous one everyone wanted to be like.
What I remember even more vividly happened two days later at my grandmother’s house. My cousin, watching TV, began shouting that “he” had been shot.
“We know that,” I responded, a little offended. Who didn’t know Kennedy had been shot?
“Not Kennedy,” my cousin shouted. He was always shouting. “Oswald!”
For the first time in my life, I knew what it meant to be shocked. Since there weren’t replays back then, we listened silently as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley described how Jack Ruby had sneaked up and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the ribs right before the eyes of the world. No one knew what to say. You just couldn’t believe what was happening.
Even in my innocent mind, I kept thinking that something funny was going on. I was even more convinced a few months later when we learned that Ruby was dying of cancer.
Although no one has been able to prove it, I still don’t think Oswald acted alone. But regardless of who was responsible, that weekend was one of those defining moments that shape the times you live in, like 9-11 and Pearl Harbor.
I can’t help wondering what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been shot. Would he, like Lincoln, be romanticized the way he is today? Would he have gone down as a great president, in the same league with Washington, Jefferson and Roosevelt? Or would he be remembered as just another president, judged for what he did, rather than what he might have done? And would we have had Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War?
I know it’s frivolous, but I’ve often wondered what JFK, a Sinatra man who was my second-favorite president, would have thought of the Beatles, my second-favorite group. Like so many other things, we’ll never know.