Friday, November 22, 2013

Black Crepe November - Invented, Irrefutable, Unknowable

My brother Mike steps in here to share some thoughts on that long ago time that is still with us - the time of the death of John Kennedy which comes up now for its 50th anniversary. I was home from school, sick, up stairs, when it happened on November 22, 1963. As I recall, yes, it was as my parents were at Zayres on the following Sunday morning that Oswald was shot. Back at home we heard that news on NBC Monitor radio reports. - J.V.

Invented Memory, Irrefutable Truth, Unknowable Truth - I was living in Racine, Wisconsin and had just turned three when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. While I don’t remember that day specifically, the story is that my brother, sister, and I were watching Bozo’s Circus, a TV show on Chicago’s WGN that always came on at noon. Though I was small, I somehow still remember the time as very sad for Americans. For my parents, both Irish Catholics from Boston, it was extra devastating. With Kennedy being the first Irish Catholic president, he had given Irish and Catholic Americans the chance to be more than just perpetual back-seat ethnic types in America. To lose Kennedy so suddenly and so brutally, the loss was incalculable. My parents decided they needed to go and buy black crepe to thumb-tack to the frame of our front door.

I do remember watching the funeral on our black and white television, the solemnity, the drums , the horses, the black funeral attire, black veils, the fuzziness of live broadcast then, the 21–gun salute, the smoke from the shells, and having to be explained the significance of the 21-gun salute. I remember John-John saluting the casket. My mother had already drawn a parallel between me and him in that we were born a month apart and she tried to dress me in the same 3-year-old fashion he wore. That he had lost his father made us all feel more sad. Yet to this day, I can’t be sure that I truly remember John John that day or whether I gleaned that part of the memory later from photographs in library books and documentaries.  So I might have made some of this memory up.

On November 24th my parents went off to Zayre’s , then a dime-store chain a notch above Woolworth’s, to shop for black crepe. Word came from the television department that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot making him the first man in history to be murdered on live television. I always imagine my parents walking past a long row of television sets, the same guy getting shot over and over on each TV set. But I’m just making this up like I’m directing my own MTV video in my head.  They were there in the store but it didn’t happen that way.

It’s an irrefutable truth that John Kennedy was murdered that day in November 1963. But a lot of people don’t agree on who killed him. According to Gallup in 2001, 13% of Americans believed that Oswald acted alone while 81% believed “others involved, ” up from 52% in 1963, alongside the same number, 81%, in 1976 when the HSCA (House Select Committee on Assassinations) concluded that Kennedy was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy. For this 81%, the identity of the killers would be an unknowable truth.

Many years after 1963, I asked my father if he thought that Kennedy’s election had raised Irish and Catholics out of a then permanent second class status. He didn’t know what I was talking about.  So I might have been earlier expressing a hypothesis that was a pure invention of my head, totally made up.

I don’t remember seeing black crepe thumb-tacked to the front door of the house so that could be all made up, too.

I recently stumbled upon a crumpled beige paper bag in a rarely-visited dresser in what had been my parents’ bedroom. I had noticed the bag before but never bothered with it. It had something clumpy inside that seemed like paper or fabric. I flipped the bag over and saw the old logo for Zayre’s.  A cash receipt for 99 cents was taped to the bag. A close look at the tag rendered the date “10-24-63.” I opened the bag and pulled out a carefully folded pile of black crepe. There it was before me: silent, enigmatic, irrefutable truth. And we had held onto it for 50 years. - Michael Vaughan

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