It was a rainy afternoon on November 22nd, 1963 in Peoria when America lost it's innocence and was sadly changed forever. I had just finished with lunch at my house on Kenwood Avenue and my mother was helping me on with my raincoat for my two block walk back to to Calvin Coolidge grade school from my lunch break to resume my classes there, when Walter Cronkite shockingly announced over the television that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas Texas.
My left arm was up in the air, and my mom had just slipped the sleeve of my raincoat over it when both Mom and I turned to look at the TV—no picture of Walter there, just the words “CBS News Special Report” written over and over again in a slanting column across the TV screen. This little tableau—my mom, the TV, and my arm in the air with the sound of the rain hitting the windows is one of the things I remember best about that day.
Mom just stood there with a blank look on her face staring at the television, and I wandered down into the basement to inspect some decals I had just put on the rear fender of my bicycle before returning to school. At the age of nine, the enormity of what we'd just heard on the television was a little too much for me to fully comprehend, though I did have some idea that what I'd just heard was pretty damn big. I came back up the stairs from the basement and mom shooed me out the door to go back to school, while the babbling drone from the TV became nonstop and incessant. As I walked back to school, all I could think was: “Oh, geez.”
When I got back to school, the first thing I noticed was all the blank looks on most of the faces of the teachers, and some of them looked like they'd been punched hard in the guts. A few of them had tears running down their faces and all of them, except for the occasional admonition to us kids to “move along” or “sit down please” were very, very quiet. Most of us kids, through a kind of low grade telepathy all kids seem to have at times seemed to know that this would be a very bad time to crack wise or smart off about anything at all, and we were all very quiet too, and in our own best interest also...of that we were all more or less certain.
My next class was supposed to be gym class as I remember after returning from lunch, and my entire class was herded into the gymnasium where we stood around in rows, on the shiny, scuffed hardwood floor. Some of us were pivoting the toes of our sneakers on the hardwood and looking at the floor, looking at the walls, and trying not to look directly at any of the adults in the room, because they all had faces like planks and a lot of them had tears on their faces. For most of us kids, this was an absolute first, I know I'd never seen any adult crying before or on the verge of tears before in my entire short life—ever.
The principal came on the intercom while we were standing there, and you could tell by the sound of his voice that he was crying too (man-oh-man, that was another huge first for all of us kids—in our wildest dreams we couldn't even begin to picture him crying.) He told us that President Kennedy had died and that classes had been canceled for the day and that we were all to go home, for those of us that needed rides, parents would be contacted. We filed out of the gym like silent little ghosts to go get our raincoats and go home.
The rest of that day was dominated by the TV news, all day and into the night as well, nonstop. One thing I distinctly remember (and this was another first for me that day) was David Brinkley on NBC news calling Lee Harvey Oswald a punk. I remember how just before he said that short terse, ugly little word there was the briefest of hesitations as Brinkley's lips thinned and he almost seemed to cough the word out as if it left a bad taste in his mouth: “Punk.”
I'd never heard any adult, much less a trusted authority figure on the nightly news call anyone a punk before. A striking word—especially to a nine year old kid that I was back then. I found myself trying to visualize the other TV father figures I was used to seeing on TV back then calling somebody a punk...Beaver Cleaver's dad Ward, Jim Anderson on Father knows Best, Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie and Harriet, and I just couldn't do it, it just didn't fly...or if it did fly it flew right in the face of everything I was led to expect at the age of nine: “Punk.” More evidence that day that the world as I knew it was flying off the handle in an entirely unknown direction.
I didn't think news reporters on TV were even allowed to get pissed off enough to be calling anyone a punk on TV. It made my stomach hurt a little just thinking about it. One thing I knew for sure back then was that I wouldn't want to be this “Harvey” guy alone in a room with old David Brinkley. Shit just seemed to be getting more and more serious as that night went on, and harder and harder for me to accept or understand. Eventually my folks sent me, my brother and my two sisters to bed.
For some reason. I fixated on Lee Harvey Oswald's middle name Harvey...to me, he became that “Harvey” guy. I didn't even want to think about his first name Lee, which as it turned out was also my middle name. I didn't like the idea of any part of my full name to be associated with such a thoroughly damned creature such as him (and in later years, it became discomfiting to me how many serial killers and homicidal losers on death row, mostly in the southern states, seem to have the same middle name as I do). So, as far as I was concerned, Oswald was to be forever thought of as: “That Harvey Guy.”
Two days later, at about 11:20 AM, I was watching TV when I saw “That Harvey Guy” get shot in the guts by a pissed off burly guy in a dark fedora hat as it was actually happening—live TV—no tape...and then I watched the cops go nuts tackling the guy in the hat to the floor. A short while later I saw that “Harvey” guy being carried away on a stretcher with what looked to me to be a pinched look on his face. Then, I walked into the dining room (where my Dad was pulling the back off the radio that he kept in his and mom's bedroom on a nightstand trying to get at a burned out vacuum tube so he could test it at the drugstore tube tester and replace it if necessary) from the living room and told him: “Hey Dad...some guy in a hat just shot that Harvey guy right in the guts on TV, should have heard him yell. I bet that really hurt.”
Dad looked up from the back of the radio and said “What?”
I said: “That 'Harvey' guy...the one that shot Kennedy...some guy in a hat just shot him in the guts.” For a couple years afterwards, Jack Ruby to me was “The Hat Guy.”
Dad called for Mom, and then they both spent the rest of the afternoon with their eyes once again glued to the television. This was another major, not to mention spectacularly ugly first in my young life, in a year when I first began to seriously realized there was a hell of a lot going on in the world that I didn't understand at all...and that the TV news could be a hell of a lot scarier than I had ever imagined it could be.
There was a cartoon film production company back then that was responsible for many TV cartoons that some of my readers may remember well. Baby Huey, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Witch and others were presented to kids my age by the company known as Harvey Films. The company logo was a harlequin that popped out of a jack-in-the-box and unfolded an accordion-ed sign that spelled out “HARVEY FILMS.” While Casper and Baby Huey and all the other Harvey Tune characters looked up smiling at the harlequin with a kind of religious awe.
I watched Harvey cartoons all the time back then. After the JFK assassination, and my fixation on Lee Harvey Oswald's middle name began to develop, there were times that I swear I could see the harlequin's face change into Oswald's face while Casper and friends looked up at him with solemn looks of horror on their faces at the end of every Harvey Films cartoon
So, in addition to robbing America of one of it's most admired presidents and turning the course of American history down an uncertain and frightening path by this pointless and terrible murder, this loser with his smirking,small chinned face hanging out managed to screw up Saturday morning cartoon time for me as well...the creep!
Well, time went by and the wounds inflicted on an entire nation by that chinless loser were a long time in healing (some might say they never fully healed at all, and I'd be inclined to agree with them), but it wasn't long before the 8 millimeter film shot by one Abraham Zapruder began to appear on television. Before I even made it into Jr high school, I found myself being treated (right along with a few million other kids my age) to the hideous sight of the President's head exploding over and over again on prime time TV, with arrows and circles an other graphics that hinted that the Warren Commission’s report may have been too hasty—that a conspiracy against the president may have been involved. This added a whole new flavor of scary weirdness to one of the most talked about crimes in American history, and driving my Dad wild on the subject every time it was mentioned.
For my dad, the very thought of a conspiracy involving high government officials, the Mafia, the CIA and a host of others was just too much. If the subject was mentioned in his presence, his eyes would go wild and he'd initiate a shouting match with who ever was foolish enough to do so.
Dad went ballistic on my uncle Bob one time when he mentioned the subject while on a visit to our house, and for a while I thought it got so bad that they were going to start wailing on each other right there in the living room. And uncle Bob was one of the most layed back of our relatives, content to just sit back, drink his Hamms beer and watch a football game on TV. As far as dad was concerned, the thought of a high level conspiracy was a troubled offense. It seemed to hurt him deep in his mind.
Fast forward to August 1st, 1966—less than three years after JFK died and with my family’s move from Peoria to Minnesota still fresh on my mind, when Charles Whitman, another ex-marine with a disordered mind (some say because of a brain tumor located in the amygdalae region of his brain about the size of a pecan) climbed the stairs to the top of the university tower in Austin Texas (Texas...again) and murdered some family members on the way up and locked himself onto the observation deck of the tower with a sack full of rifles and started shooting everyone in sight. He even managed to blow some holes in an airplane with a news man rolling tape on him in the passenger seat for the evening news. More six o'clock news hideousness on the evening news and by now I'm old enough to wonder—really wonder—just what's wrong with the world, and what manner of hell are we the American people going to find when we get to the end of our long, strange journey.
Peoria, I've often felt, marked the end of my own age of innocence in my last years of living there, and my coming to Minnesota just before a major March blizzard in 1966 seemed to mark the real beginning of that long, strange journey towards points unknown...a journey that as of now, seems far from finished...