11/22/13 JFK and Fifty Years
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.
“Someone killed the President,” someone said. I don’t remember who.
I was standing on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Gamble’s first grade class at Gautier Elementary School in Gautier, Mississippi. We were just coming back from afternoon recess. I knew that JFK was the president. I knew what being killed meant. I knew that he was gone. I remember being saddened by that and I remember all the grownups being saddened and speaking in hushed whispers.
I still have a friend I maintain contact with out of that first grade class. Sara Shepard, who now lives in Nashville and is also a musician was there on that sidewalk with me. I wonder what her memories are. There are others still around but I no longer have any way to contact them. Mrs. Gamble is long gone.
I think it’s remarkable that all that occurred fifty years ago. It is even more remarkable that the one person I still have as a friend that was there on that sidewalk with me in 1963 is a musician. It is even more remarkable that the first ever musical performance collaboration I ever participated in was with the same Sara Shepard. Sara was my first duet partner. No one else can claim that spot…just Sara. I have had many duet partners over the years, ending with my daughter, Piper, who is my strongest duet partner, ever, sharing as we do that family harmony that makes duets so special. Of course, Piper has no personal memory of November 22, 1963. She is a history teacher, though. Her memories of this event are limited to what others observed since she is not old enough to have observed anything about it; her father was just six years old.
I remember the teachers all crying as they spoke in their hushed whispers. I have a vague memory of school having been let out early, but I could be mistaken about that. I wonder what Sara’s memories are. Perhaps she will share them with me.
In the obscure, sleepy, moss-draped fishing village of Gautier, Mississippi, for a time, the already slow pace slowed even further. When I got home, I remember everyone speculating about who had killed the President. It was decided that this was a communist plot. I remember my grandfather getting out his .38 special and my father cleaning his 30 caliber carbine, all, I’m sure, to defend us children from the communists who were probably staging an immediate amphibious assault at Graveline (Grav-uh-LEEN) beach.
Sara and her family lived right on the beach. I wonder what her father and grandfather were thinking. I wonder if they could see the communists lurking offshore, ready to strike the minute we were not vigilant, lulled back into our sleepiness by the still warm November breezes as we ran about in our shirtsleeves and short pants, still swatting mosquitoes as Spanish Moss swayed in live oak trees where Pelicans perched on ground looped branches as they intently watched the water’s surface for a school of mullet that might venture into the shallows.
I wonder what all the adults were thinking. I can only speculate now. My mother could tell me, but her memory would be very different than mine. She would likely not recall Daddy and PawPaw getting their guns out and cleaning them. She would not likely recall the slight dullness of the rust on the 30 caliber carbine and Daddy cussing as he rebuked himself for not taking better care of his rifle. He kept it stowed on the boat to shoot sharks before hauling them into the boat on fishing trips. It’s not like we were hauling in great whites, but there was the occasional Hammerhead, or the occasional Mako, and lots of sand sharks. The greatest danger, if one was in the boat, was that you were likely to get bitten if you stuck your finger in their mouth. I kept waiting for Daddy to shoot a hole in the boat as he shot the shark, but he never did. Gaff ’em, pull ’em in to the side of the boat, and plug them a good one. Back then, no one ate sharks, but we’d chum them and let the scent of their blood bring other fish for us to catch.
I always had the idea that communists looked a lot like the sharks we caught. I have since actually seen communists. They look nothing like sharks. They look a lot like me, though politically and economically we have nothing in common.
We have since learned a lot about JFK. He was not actually the King Arthur of the Camelot we read about, but no one ever is. We learned that he had feet of clay just like everyone else. We have learned that he was perhaps not quite as liberal as liberals make him out to be, though at the time he was pretty liberal by the prevailing Mississippi gauges through which such things are measured.
Like anyone who dies in his prime, suddenly taken away from us, JFK will remain forever youthful in our minds… just like James Dean, or perhaps, just like his friend, Marilyn Monroe. We never saw his body age and decay simply through the passage of time. At the instant of his death, he became frozen in time, as youthful as his latest photograph, and never any older.
There are lots of conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s assassination. Grassy knolls, unseen gunmen, communist plots, vengeful Cubans, LBJ’s Machiavellian machinations, and so forth and so on. There will never be any closure to those who long for conspiracies. If one version of conspiracy is ever closed, the theorists will just roll over to the next one, citing as proof of the conspiracy the very evidence used to deny the conspiracy. It is a dark world, that of the conspiracy theorist. That one exists is not unlikely, but it cannot be disproven. Proving something is exponentially easier than disproving something.
I have thought about this at length, having had fifty years to do so. I am certain it was the communists. I can remember going down to Graveline beach one evening a few days later, and in a dark, dark cloud, pregnant with rain and electrical discharges, just hanging off the coast far enough to see the rage of the storm but still able to stand on the beach in long red light of the waning sunshine, in a flash of lightning, I saw the communists in the cloud. I could see that ol’ Nikita Kruschev himself at the helm of the amphibious landing craft, banging the wheel with his shoe held in his hand, demanding in the name of the politburo that the boat go faster. I was terrified, nearly as terrified as the comrades in the boat with ol’ Nikita.
I hopped back on my bicycle and pedaled as fast as I could back to my grandfather’s house. It was about three miles. If I hurried, I could beat the rain, beat the darkness, beat the communists, and be able to warn PawPaw of the approaching danger. As I burst into the house, MawMaw was cooking a pot of chili, and PawPaw was sitting at the dining room table, cleaning his Smith&Wesson M&P .38 Special nickel-plated revolver. It was spic and span, having been cleaned daily now for the last few days. I looked at PawPaw. I looked at the pistol in his hand.
PawPaw held up the revolver, inspecting it closely. He raised it up and took dead aim at some imaginary target, cocked the pistol, and squeezed the trigger, letting the hammer fall on an empty chamber. He blew off the imaginary smoke, set the pistol down, and lit a cigarette. He didn’t seem too worried to me. Perhaps he was not worried because he had that big, shiny pistol, which I was persuaded would scare off a whole horde of the communists who were likely landing this very instant on Graveline Beach just a mile or so west of Sara Shepard’s house. I wondered if Sara could see them as they drove their amphibious vehicles right up onto the beach. I wondered if her father was ready to take a shot at them and if he had a shiny Smith&Wesson .38 special, too.
I was so engrossed in my own thinking that I forgot to tell PawPaw I had seen the invading communists. About the time I was ready to say something, MawMaw plopped the chili down on the table, and we set in to eating with a will. PawPaw slurped at his chili while the revolver was tucked away in a leather holster on his belt. No communist would dare to interrupt our supper.
I vowed right then to get me a pistol just like that one one day, but I never did, because I didn’t have to. Nope, I don’t have a pistol like that one, I have THAT one. Every time I look at that pistol, I think of my PawPaw and the hordes of communists it scared away from the Mississippi coast in late November, 1963, when we lost a young president to conspiracies that have lived longer than he did. The conspiracies get old and fade, but our mental image of JFK never gets old; he is as durable as the shiny, nickel-plated Smith&Wesson .38 Special Revolver in my gun safe. I think I’ll get it out and shoot it today and think of my PawPaw. Maybe I’ll take a photo of it later and attach it to this blog post. Maybe I’ll do lots of things. Maybe I’ll do nothing. I’ll know more when I make up my mind or take a sudden notion. Maybe I’ll call Sara Shepard…if not, I’ll certainly think of her, wondering what she might recall about the death of JFK and the threat of an imminent communist invasion.
I’ll keep you posted.
By the way, PawPaw’s Smith& Wesson .38 Special was nearly claimed by the salt water it was submerged in at my father’s home during Hurricane Katrina. I was able to rescue it just in time before rust and salt rendered it forever inoperable. The pistol fared better than Sara Shepard’s childhood home, which was not recoverable, and was one of the many thousands of homes completely destroyed.