For those of us of a certain age, this is not just any ordinary day in November. This is November 22nd, the day of the JFK assassination.
I was only 10 when President Kennedy was killed so I can't pretend that I really understood the significance of the event when it happened. What struck me more than anything else that day was the fact that my teachers were actually real people, not just strict dispensers of knowledge who lived at the front of a classroom. In the middle of an afternoon class, my former grade 5 teacher, Miss Rice, walked into my grade 6 classroom wailing, "Isn't it terrible? Isn't it terrible?"` There was no polite knock on the door, no discreet note sent to another room. No, this normally austere woman simply burst into our room, without warning.That was our clue that this was a day entirely out of the ordinary.
Like many boomers, I've followed the Kennedy family's ups and downs ever since then. I was devastated on the morning of my grade 10 math exam, when my mother woke me with the news that Bobby Kennedy had also been killed. That summer (1968) our family embarked on our longest road trip; across North America to Las Vegas, up the Pacific coast to Vancouver and finally, a short jaunt across Canada, back home to Ottawa. My parents are saints!
Reading provided me with an escape from the squabbles with my five siblings. At a gas station in Denver I picked up a copy of William Manchester's Death of A President, which I still have.
It's seven hundred and forty-nine pages of tiny print but I dove right in. In fact I remember my mother telling me to "get your nose out of that book and have a look out the window". She was right. At that point we were driving by the Grand Canyon and I've never returned to that area. I should have put the book down and admired the scenery but I couldn't.
Stephen King has written, "I was also deeply impressed - and moved, and shaken - by my rereading of William Manchester's Death of a President . . . this massive work, published only four years after that terrible lunch hour in Dallas, is closer in time to the assassination, written when most of the participants were still alive and their recollections were still vivid. Armed with Jacqueline Kennedy's conditional approval of the project, everyone talked to Manchester and although his account of the aftermath is turgid, his narrative of 11/22's events is chilling and vivid, a Zapruder film in words."
A friend recently recommended Stephen Kings novel, 11/22/63.
I loved it as soon as I saw the book jacket. On one side you have the familiar photo of John and Jackie in the motorcade, along with the shocking headline of the day. However, on the back cover you have the opposite headline!
Like the Manchester book years ago, I became totally engrossed in this one. Again, at eight hundred and forty-two pages, this is no light read. It's a time travel affair and I rarely read time travel. The main character, Jake Epping, a teacher, is sent on a mission: to travel back in time to prevent President Kennedy's assassination. Throughout the book we learn all sorts of details about Oswald and his background. The focus is on him, more than on Kennedy. It's a fascinating read. While I was originally attracted to this book because I cared about Kennedy, King is such a masterful storyteller that I ended up really caring about Jake Epping.
The political and historical information that King presented was impressive but what I really enjoyed was the way he was able to re-create the time period. He didn't sugar-coat it. He presented the negatives as well as the positives. What he makes you long for is the slower pace of life, the simplicity of the 50's and 60's, the more personal interactions in daily life.
On October 29th, CBC radio's Cross Country Checkup, discussed the question, "Are your changing shopping habits killing the department store and the mall?" Click here to go to that discussion. It was interesting to hear shoppers discuss the closing of Sears and what that means to shopping malls and our shopping patterns. Many listeners lamented the lack of social interaction with on-line purchases. No one knows you on line. No one has a clue about you in the checkout line of a huge store. I refuse to shop at Walmart and hold them responsible for the deaths of so many small independent stores, the demise of so many small towns.
That radio discussion reminded me of one of my favourite sections in King's book. This quote from 11/22/63 gives a nostalgic snapshot of life in the 60's. Here King is talking about the town of Derry, where Jake Epping lives, in the 60's.
"Here's home: the smell of the sage and the way the hills flush orange with Indian blanket in the summer. The faint taste of tobacco on Sadie's tongue and the squeak of the oiled wood floorboards in my homeroom. . . . Other things too. People saying howdy on the street, people giving me a wave from their cars, Al Stevens taking Sadie and me to the table at the back that he had started calling "our table," playing cribbage on Friday afternoons in the teachers' room with Danny Laverty for a penny a point, arguing with elderly Miss Mayer about who gave the better newscast, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. My street, my shotgun house, getting used to using a typewriter again. Having a best girl and getting S&H Green Stamps with my groceries and real butter on movie popcorn. Home is watching the moon rise over the open sleeping land and having someone you can call to the window, so you can look together. Home is where you dance with others, and dancing is life."
I love the feelings conjured up in that section. When he talks about playing cribbage in the teachers' room I think of my own days in teachers' rooms and the fun lunches we used to have. Now at many schools, teachers rarely bother to go to the staff room. When they do eat their lunch there, the conversations are limited. Most of the young teachers are bent over their phones, communicating with anyone but the people they are sitting beside. It's a different time altogether.
Thanks to Stephen King for the research, for the compelling story, and for the warm glimpse into days gone by. Earlier this month more than 2800 government documents related to the JFK assassination were released. Maybe, if the remainder of the files are released next year, we'll have an even better idea of why President Kennedy was killed on November 22nd.