Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Patrick Flynn and Ronald Tipton, 2016.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Ago Today: Reflections on a Friday

November 22, 2013, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. This piece was written the evening of November 22, 1963. It describes that afternoon when we learned of this. John Kennedy had been President for less than three years at that time and was concerned about the election year coming up. When you read the article keep in mind that JFK was not liked by everyone, in fact, it was not at all certain he would win re-election in 1964. Don't be shocked that there was joking and even expressions by some of being glad this happened. This is not a fiction, but simply a recording of what occurred when the news came in to the office here I worked and the reactions of those around me.

REFLECTIONS ON A FRIDAY
November 22, 1963, Malvern, Pa.

         Lunchtime, I sat at my desk with the Philadelphia Daily News across its top. The headline read
“Baker’s Pal’s Widow Denies Suicide Link.” A picture of a woman was on the left.  On the right was one of Jackie Kennedy, with the President standing just behind her. She was speaking in Houston, Texas.
One o’clock, and I was supposed to be back on the job, but I went out to cash my paycheck and do a little shopping with my friend, Dave Claypoole, and was late to eat. I skipped the news and turned to the editorial page to read the letters. Even the usual crackpot letters were dull. I flipped further back and read the comics. My lunch was finished so I stuffed the paper into a drawer, put my empty soda bottle in the wastebasket and returned to sorting the index cards I had been working on before lunch.
As I sorted, a simple matter of putting them in numerical order, I planned for the coming weekend.  First, we would get groceries. Then I would get a haircut while my wife, Lois Jean, shopped. Saturday I would get up early to change a bad tire on our car and then I would take Lois Jean bowling. In the evening we would go to a drive-in movie. Sunday I hoped to get my studies finished and work on a story I was writing.
As I outlined my weekend, time was flying on its way through the afternoon. I was tired of looking at numbers and glanced at the wall clock. It was eleven minutes until two o’clock. At almost the same moment, Bob Keifer, a fellow worker, came by my desk. We had become good friends during the year and he often stopped at my desk with a new joke.
“Did you hear? They shot Kennedy.”
I waved away his joke with my hand. “Aw, come on, Bob.”
But he circled around to the side of my desk. “I’m not kidding.” He had a strange smile on his face
 So I still didn’t believe him.
“They’ve shot Kennedy. If you don’t believe me, ask Bill.”
I decided to take him up on this dare. Bill Mayberry was fanatical about John F. Kennedy. He had worked as a volunteer for Kennedy during the election and he never ceased praising the President. He had a large picture of Kennedy taped to his desk and a habit of whistling, “Hail to the Chief”.
“That’s Jack’s favorite song,” he would tell us.
I walked briskly, although not with urgency, toward the front of the mailroom where Bill had his desk. Before I reached him, I overheard a conversation between two mail boys. I did not catch the actual words, but I did hear something about the President and a shooting.
Now I could see Mayberry. He was sitting still with an expression as if his brain had short-circuited. I wanted to know what had happened, but I could not approach Bill after seeing his face. I went over to the mail boys. I did not notice who was saying what.  It was a jumbled, boiling conversation. Much of the afternoon was that way.
Sometime in this same general period, covering three minutes perhaps, the mail truck returned from a trip around the company offices. It passed by me.
“Is he dead?” somebody asked.
“I heard he was in serious condition,” said a voice behind the truck.
Bill stood and moved into the open area of the room. He was shaking his head slowly. He might have said something. I don’t recall if he did.
Someone else was speaking.
“I hear he’s dead. And his wife and some governor are in critical condition.”
I turned toward the sound, never seeing who was speaking. I asked, “They got his wife?” I felt a quick shiver in my backbone.
“That’s what I heard,” said a voice.
“I heard they missed him,” said another unseen. Voices were in the air, like spirits come to confuse mortal men.
A new mail boy named Jim Curtain entered the room, chattering like a small boy announcing information he isn’t supposed to have, saying over and over, “They got him with machine guns. I heard he was sprayed with bullets.”
Mayberry confirmed the rumor in a low murmur.  “He was shot.”
Curtain was flitting about an older boy named John Pal, asking John about a certain caliber of Browning rifle. “That’s a machine gun, isn’t it? It’s an automatic. Don’t you have to use a tripod to shoot it?”
Still at this point, no one really believed it had happened. At least, no one believed the worse. We were beginning to accept the rumor the President had been fired at, but we doubted the rumors of his death or injury was true.
It couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen minutes since Bob Keifer had first stopped at my desk when it crossed my mind to call my wife. She might have the TV on and know more than we did. I got the company operator on Mayberry’s telephone.
 “Is this a personal call or…”.
“Personal, yes.”
“I’m sorry,” she seemed angry, “we can hardly get business calls out under the circumstances let alone personal.”
I hung up and walked to my own section. I could not work without knowing more about the rumors. The deaf man, who ran a stuffing machine, George Taylor, asked me what had happened.
“They shot the President,” I told him.
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
I returned to the front of the mailroom and Bill Mayberry had left for lunch.  The latest rumor was the President and his wife were alive and all right, as well as some Senator who had been wounded. There was a knot of mail boys talking at the front of the room. I saw Bob Keifer and, I believe, John Pal. George Johl was working not too far away. George was another close friend. He was a family man, holding down two jobs and going to night school, and a Negro with strong loyalty to Kennedy.
I went to the group and said to Bob, “I wonder if Bill will be heading out for revenge?”
“He went home to get his gun,” said Bob, then he turned to George Johl.  “See what you caused, see what your people caused?”
Suddenly bad taste had taken a hold of the room. It was strange, people telling cruel jokes at such a time, but I think it was because we wouldn’t accept the idea such a thing could happen. It must  just be a bad-taste joke as well.
A Federal Mailman came through the supply room from outside dragging a dirty gray bag of mail. He was grinning.  He dropped the bag and pointed at Bob Keifer.
“Why’d you do it?”
Bob kind of laughed, eyes wide, throwing up  his palms. “I didn’t do it.”
“Sure,” said the mailman. He looked at the rest of us. “He did it,” he said. “You did it.” No one spoke. he looked around. “I’m kidding. But I know who did it.”
“Who?” asked one of the girls.
“His wife was going to,” said the mailman, looking at her, “she would have.”
I was stunned by the broad grin on the mailman’s face as he explained how Jackie hated Jack and had plotted his death. “I’m glad it happened, the mailman said.”
I stood and listened. I wanted to slug the man, but one doesn’t do that in real life, do they? The mailman left.
I murmured to Bob, adding my own prejudice to the rumors, “And you wondered what Johnson was doing?”
Bob had asked only the other day what the vice-president was doing these days.  Johnson’s invisibility was a common joke. Now I was hinting that he had been plotting this crime. But perhaps, considering the rivalry and the location, it wasn’t so uncommon to say such a horrible thing.
Now speculation about the motives and who might have done it multiplied. Somebody thought it was a Cuban plot. Bob felt it had been a Negro group in Brooklyn.
“The Black Muslins?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“They’re not just in Brooklyn,” I told him.
“I know,” he said.  “They’re everywhere.”
An idea came to me. “Hey,” I said, “Edwin Walker! Isn’t he down there in Dallas?”
“Yeah, that’s his territory,” said Bob.
“Could be those nuts. Look at what happened with Stevenson.” [Note: On October 24, 1963 U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson arrived at the Dallas Memorial Auditorium to make a speech and was attacked by a large mob of General Edwin Walker's followers.]
Speculation was beginning to repeat itself. I decided to visit my friend Dave Claypoole in the payroll department to see if he had heard anything. It seemed an eternity until an elevator arrived in the lobby.
I took the elevator, which was crowded. There were three women and at least as many men in it. As we ascended everybody was silent until we reached the fourth or fifth floor and then one of the women mentioned something about the President being wounded in Dallas.
“He’s dead,” said a man.
“Uoh!” gasped the woman. “He’s dead?”
“That’s what I heard outside,” said the man.
Another man nodded his head. “I understand he was shot three times in the head.”
I got off and found Dave in his office. We both went down to the cafeteria and had a cup of coffee. I leaned against the machine that dispensed the coffee.
“Bad news. This is bad news,” I said.
All of a sudden I was shaking. I could feel it in my legs and stomach. It was a quivering, as if I was outside on a cold day.
A woman walked toward us, as if seeking news.
Dave tossed his arms up and open, speaking in a louder than normal voice. “Well, is this our chance to take over?”
The woman gave him a look of distaste. She hurried away. His words panicked me. I spun toward him. I began pacing with my hands in my pockets, trying to get rid of the cold I felt. I was shaking my head, sucking in on my lower lip. “What a sense of humor,” I said.
“I’m surprised it got you so shook up,” he said. “You didn’t agree with Kennedy’s policies.”
“But he is the President.”
We went back upstairs. I was still shaking. A woman passed us. “It’s true,” she said, “that was my mother. She said she heard he’s dead.”
The girl just inside the payroll room spoke, “I have a friend who use to work on the Inquirer. She knows someone there. Somehow she got through to them. They say he’s dead.” She told us somebody else was critical and we thought she said Jackie.
I left Dave and caught a down elevator. People got on and off. Two men were talking, smiling, joking. Other people were calm and normal. One carried coffee. Everybody hadn’t heard yet.
Back in the mailroom, I found Bob. “Let’s see what Russ says?” We found Russ Weeks, who just returned from lunch.  He had a radio and most of the mailroom was grouped around him.
Russ was just breaking away from the group when we got there.  His radio was not working. “He died, I understand,” he said.
It seemed certain by this time that the President had been shot and was probably dead.  It was confused whether anyone else had been shot.
Someone told Russ that Mayberry had left.
“Did he? Has anyone checked to see if he chartered a plane to Dallas?”
“No, but he went home to get his gun.”
Russ shrugged. “It’s a shame he got shot on a Friday,” he said over his shoulder, “otherwise, we might have least got a day off out of it.”
It was useless to try to work, but equally as useless to stand around. I started back to my desk again and was stopped by George Taylor.
“Ya know,” he said, “they were goin’ ta have steak. Somehow the Pope had made it a special Friday so they’d have meat. I don’t know what was the reason, but the Pope made it so they could eat meat.”
“I’ve heard they have certain Friday’s they can eat meat.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not Catholic so’s I don’t know what they called it, but the Pope said they could have meat today.”
“I’m not either,” I told him.  “I don’t know myself.”
“Well, ya know,” George lowered his voice; “the chef down there at the place in Dallas wanted to put this large special steak aside for Kennedy. The Secret Service wouldn’t let him. They told him to put it with the others. You cook up 3,000 steaks and we’ll pick one out.”
I kept nodding.
George went on. “Ya know, it’s funny. Just two days ago this turkey farmer wanted to give him a forty-pound turkey. Kennedy told ‘em to give it back to the man who raised it.”
Russ Weeks came in the back door. He stopped between us.
“They got the radio on out there,” he said. “One of the priests they called to perform the Last Rites said he’s dead. It’s still unofficial, though. But why would a priest lie?” He went up front.
George leaned toward me. “What he say?”
I told him. George shook his head. I followed Russ to the front. The mail girls were chatting to one side.
“I think if he was dead, Bill’s wife would have called,” said one.
"Not necessarily,” I told her, “you can’t get through. I tried to call my wife and they wouldn’t let me through.”
Jim nodded. “That’s likely.”
Somebody else, "You can’t even get a dial tone,”
Jim and I went over to Russ, who began talking right away.
"It used to be when something like this would happen, the newspaper would get out extra editions. I remember when you used to hear boys calling ‘extra, extra’ up and down the street. But now…”
I said the papers put out so many editions they didn’t need extras. But Russ had his own explanation.
“TV and radio get it so fast that the papers aren’t necessary to inform the people anymore. We were at the Cathey Teahouse when we heard. The waiters came around to each table and said the President had been shot. They said they would turn on the TV for news. It was something. The whole place went silent. The waitresses moved slowly, trying to be very quiet. Everybody just sat and listened.”
“I wish we’d get the story clear,” I mumbled.
“I don’t know how they feel upstairs,” said Russ, “but I think we should be allowed to go home.”
Mayberry’s wife called, getting through somehow, and after Russ told her Bill had left and hung up, he, Jim and I began talking about whom might have done it.
“I don’t think it was a Cuban," Russ said. “I think the anti-Castro Cubans hated Kennedy more that the pro-Castro.”
“I hope it’s a nut,” I said, “I hope it’s just some nut.”
They agreed. Russ spoke. “If the guy was with some group it would be bad. If it was a colored guy, they’ll be a lot of colored people killed. If it was a white guy doing it for the Negroes it’ll be just as bad. If it’s a Cuban, a lot of people’ll want to wipe out Cuba. I don’t think we would invade Cuba, but a lot of people would want us to.”
“That’s why I hope a nut did it on his own.”
“But if this is a group, I’m afraid there will be a lot of violence,” said Russ.
A new report reached us. It said the President was dead, the Governor of Texas was critical, Johnson was having a heart attack and was probably wounded. It was also reported that a German Musser rifle had been found on the sixth floor of some building. Three shell casings were nearby and one unfired bullet was in the rifle. It was believed this meant the assassin meant to get Johnson too.
Bill Mayberry returned and reported they had caught the assassin.
“He’s twenty-five and white,” he said.
More and more people knew. It was about three o’clock. There was anger and joy, rumor and speculation. I asked to go home and was allowed. I caught the train and the entire trip I read and reread the headline on the Evening Bulletin:
SNIPER KILLS KENNEDY

1 comment:

Ron said...

Lar,

A day we will never forget as long as we live. This was the first "Where were you when you heard?" moment in our lives. I think the previous one was Pearl Harbor, which of course I don't remember but I was around as were you.

Ron