I sat on the couch and my grandmother sat in her recliner. We were watching, The Rifleman, on her black and white. It was her favorite program outside of Divorce Court. My aunts could not convince her that the couples in Divorce Court were actors. She would become quite upset at the drama sometimes, shaking her hand at the television and slipping into Slovene when English could not express the emotions the program evinced. My aunt insisted on buying the television, since my grandmother was alone during the day, as my grandfather had passed.
She was unable to venture out into the yard and talk over the bushes to her neighbor in November 1963, or pick at and prune her dead plants, so the television was a novel source of entertainment for her when she finally turned it on, but only after much waving it off as another ridiculous piece of technology that she could live without. A door-to-door salesman arrived one day to hawk a new oven that featured a light that came on when the oven was finished preheating. She invited him in and took him to the kitchen, where she demonstrated how to test if the oven was hot enough. She sprinkled a little flour at the bottom. When the flour turned brown, the oven was ready, she explained, and then sent him on his way.
I lived in a Catholic orphanage then, my parents having split up. When I became ill at about the age of eight, it was decided that I needed to have my tonsils removed. I stayed at my paternal grandmother’s before surgery, and then at my maternal grandmother’s after surgery, where I would spend Thanksgiving with my siblings before returning to the orphanage.
That is how I came to be sitting on the couch watching, The Rifleman, with my Slovenian grandmother on November 22, 1963, when the program stopped, and a graphic display appeared — SPECIAL REPORT. Walter Cronkite appeared and announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.
My grandmother immediately covered her face with her hands, and when she removed them, she was in tears. She began wailing, going back and forth between English and Slovenian, looking at me and then Walter and back with supplicant hands, until finally Walter announced that the President had died. I felt no emotion at all. I was only eight. I knew who Kennedy was and what a president was, but I could only feel a strange, stony curiosity at the event.
My grandmother was an emotional person. Her hands and arms were always very animated when she spoke and her stories about “the old country”, or the children she had lost, were full of color.
In 1914, she was a young woman living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Slovenia when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in nearby Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her near panic at Kennedy’s death was not surprising, since the event in Sarajevo broke up her family, my grandfather being forced to leave the country without her and my aunt. It would be eight years before they were reunited. Throughout the war, Turkish soldiers would take over the home, where she lived with her mother-in-law, sometimes quartering their horses inside the house. She experienced, first hand, the consequences of assassination and political turmoil.
My grandmother had a heart condition, so my uncle stopped by to sit with us and keep my grandmother calm. My maternal grandmother came to pick me up late in the afternoon, took me to the hospital for surgery, and drove me to her home the next day to recover. I coughed a lot of blood and ate a lot of ice cream and warm soup. She left the television on all day and into the night to keep abreast of the latest information on the assassination.
The suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was now in police custody after being trapped in a movie theater. Neighbors and friends dropped in throughout the day and the adults talked about the events, speculating on whether or not Oswald acted alone. Some said they thought LBJ was involved, or perhaps Castro was behind it, or even the Russians. Fear surrounding the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis were still fresh in their minds. Some thought war was imminent.
The adult talk did not frighten me much. I found it very interesting and exciting, though during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I would hear, in my mind, the sound of Russian soldiers marching outside the orphanage at night. I imagined that they looked a bit like the soldiers guarding the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz.
On Sunday morning I didn’t have to go to church. I felt lucky — recovering from surgery certainly had its advantages. I slept in, and later in the morning, my older sister arrived from the orphanage for Thanksgiving week. We were glued to the television all morning, watching events unfold. She sat in my grandmother’s recliner and I lay on the living room floor looking at the Sunday papers my grandmother picked up earlier.
The front page was filled with information on Kennedy and the assassination. There was a portrait of Kennedy as a small boy inside one edition and I remember being fascinated that he was once my age. Lyndon Johnson was now our president, according to the headlines — studying his portrait on the front page of the Tribune, I thought his features were rather Dracula-like, which gave credence to one of the adult theories that he was involved somehow.
Close to lunchtime, my grandmother was standing on a chair decorating the kitchen cupboards with turkey feathers — she was younger than my paternal grandmother, the oldest of fourteen children who grew up on a Kansas prairie. A loner and free thinker, when it was time to collect her Social Security, she quit her job at the local pet shop, and rented a small piece of land on the Fox River in Illinois. She built a one room cabin with the help of a friend who was a carpenter, and spent her summers alone there.
I moved to my uncle’s easy chair to watch the live feed of Oswald being taken out of the Dallas Police Headquarters in handcuffs. I had only seen black and white photographs of Oswald up to this point, and I was very curious to see a version of him in real time.
He was moving fast and my first thought was of the black eye, clenched mouth — a tough, hardened, defiant look — a fighting demeanor that made him seem more human than what the media portrayed. A brief doubt of his guilt popped into my mind, when suddenly a bang and an anguished shout from Oswald, and then men in suits surrounding him, and someone exclaiming, “Oswald is shot!”
By this time my grandmother was in the living room with us, standing in front of the television, and we all watched in disbelief as he was put on a stretcher. He seemed unconscious when they put him into an ambulance.
My strongest memory of that moment in history was a feeling of sadness for Lee Harvey Oswald. As an eight-year-old, I hadn’t quite got my head around the gravity of what he was accused of, the entire sequence of events, from Cronkite to the Dallas Police Headquarters, seemed like a story played out on the black and white screen — a virtual reality of its time. All of the public sorrow and television tears and the glowing reminiscences of Kennedy, only seemed to make him into a fairy tale prince in the eyes and ears of an eight-year-old — to me, he was akin to a storybook character.
I was in the midst of sizing up Oswald and making my own assessment of him as a human being, unfiltered by the media, when Jack Ruby stepped forward and gunned him down before me. I will never forget the sound that came from within Lee Harvey Oswald — a genuine sound, not the sound that came from actors shot in television Westerns. His face suddenly turned from stoic determination to a vulnerable anguish that seemed profoundly human to me. And I felt sorry for him at that moment — a moment, captured by photographer, Bob Jackson,* that floats forever in time like a Goya, Picasso, or Capa.
Lee Harvey Oswald was never given a fair trial. His judge and jury consisted of historians, journalists, conspiracy theorists, amateur Kennedy assassination investigators, the general public, and the Warren Commission. Jack Ruby left him hanging in the balance of history with an act of crackpot vigilante vengeance. The one piece of the puzzle missing in all of 1963 was Oswald’s story, now buried forever at Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park, Fort Worth, Texas.
My Slovenian grandmother had a heart attack the following spring while alone at home and died before she could reach the phone — she didn’t think much of doctors and didn’t always take her medicine. In 1973 my maternal grandmother began experiencing chest pains at her cabin. After a week alone, she drove in to town and called my mother, who drove her to the hospital, where she died of massive heart failure.
Both my grandmothers said that I would be telling my own grandchildren about the events of that Thanksgiving week, just as they told me tales of their youth. Today I have no grandchildren, so I leave my story with you.
*Jackson photo not published here due to copyright restrictions
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