Fifty years ago today, Nov. 22, I skipped school. Sitting in a comfortable chair, I propped my feet up against the side of the old kerosene stove and began reading Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” an assignment for 10th-grade English class at Tech High School.
I kept glancing up from the book to the glum light coming through the bay windows of the living room. Bare oak branches shivered against the gray sky. It was a good day to be home, reading by the toasty stove in my creaky, cozy old house in south St. Cloud.
I could hear the radio playing in the kitchen. All of a sudden, there was a news bulletin – something about President John F. Kennedy having been shot in Texas. Right away I figured he’d been hunting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch. Minor wound from a stray bullet.
I shifted my focus back to “Our Town.”
Minutes later, I was stunned to hear: “The president of the United States is dead.” Felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
Ma came hurrying from the kitchen to tell me what I’d already heard.
I remember looking out at those bare oak branches against that dreary sky, which looked suddenly much gloomier and ominous. I knew instantly that something dark and ugly had shattered our world. That bright young hope, Kennedy, had been extinguished in a split second.
Then disbelief took over.
“This just can be true,” Ma and I kept saying. “There must be some mistake. He can’t really be dead.”
Our TV set was on the fritz. All we had were occasional radio updates blaring from the kitchen. Later that day, we Dalmans all walked a block south down the alley to our good friends, the Fahnhorsts. And that is where we “camped out,” more or less, for three days – in front of their black-and-white console TV where we became instant conspiracy theorists.
Our first theory: It was the Soviet communists, and the killing of Kennedy was the first phase of their take-over plot.
Our second theory (this is embarrassing to admit): Lyndon Johnson planned the assassination so he could take over as president.
Our third theory: There must have been more people involved other than that Harvey Lee whatever-his-name is. (We were getting the news in dribs and drabs, and several times newsmen got Oswald’s name wrong.)
I vividly remember Ricky Fahnhorst calling me after I’d gone home for lunch, “Hey, Denny, guess what?! That Oswald they captured? Somebody just shot him! Right on TV. Live TV!”
I ran down the alley, back to the Fahnhorsts, back to the morbid-but-fascinating TV marathon.
Later, there was the funeral with its haunting images: the riderless horse, the muffled drum beats, the caisson with the flag-draped casket, Jackie walking next to Robert Kennedy, a black veil covering her face.
Riveted by the TV reports, we discussed and argued our three theories for hours, for days.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years. For three days, that TV set was like a box of doom, coughing up one dreadful image after another.
Years later, in 2004, during a trip to Texas, I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where Kennedy was killed, and I went up to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building and looked out the window from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president. The Dealey Plaza trip was an eerie déjà vu; I felt as if I’d been there before. In a sense I had been there – via the barrage of TV images throughout the years.
So, who shot JFK? For decades, I’ve read and heard all the theories, including the ones we cooked up in front of that TV set 50 years ago. My strongest hunch is Oswald was the lone assassin. Conspiracy theories, if you ask me, are mainly hatched by people who want to keep reliving, in the most morbid ways, those dark days. And yet, who knows? There were enough strange coincidences and sinister goings-on back in those Cold War days to keep conspiracy theorists busy for a long time to come. In another 50 years, that murder will probably still be scrutinized and maybe even solved, proof-positive, once and for all. In any case, the assassination of Kennedy is yet another proof that life can be stranger – far stranger – than fiction.