It's a cliche, of course: No one old enough to remember the assassination of President Kennedy will ever forget where they were when they heard the news.
But I suspect this is one cliche that's really true. It's certainly true in my case.
I was 24 years old, working atop a State government building that was then the tallest structure in Albany, New York. There was an observation deck outside our office windows. We were only on something like the 23rd floor. But it was a government building, the tallest building in the capital city of New York State, a stone's throw from the Capitol; and we were on the topmost floor. Not the safest place to be in the event of a catastrophe such as an attack on our country.
One of my co-workers, Don, received a phone call. I was close enough to hear him say, "That's terrible." We knew Don's father-in-law was seriously ill, and I assumed he had died. I, and probably everyone else within earshot, felt a surge of sympathy, but no alarm.
Then Don turned around and said in a dazed voice, "The President has been shot."
I remember thinking this was some strange kind of joke. I imagine myself with an idiotic half-smile on my face, waiting for a punch line that never came.
Within minutes the office was in turmoil. We had no access to news, and our boss refused to let one of the men go down and get a radio from his car. With hindsight I can sympathize with the boss. No one knew whether the assassination was the opening salvo of a war. He felt responsible for his staff, and understandably wanted to keep us together in one place until his superiors told him what to do. But we were furious.
Eventually, we were dismissed. My apartment was only a block from the office. But I didn't go straight home. I made a detour to a store, where I bought, of all things, a box of chocolates. Then I went home and settled in to watch the assassination coverage, gorging myself on chocolates.
Why? Like so many young women at any given time, I'd been informally dieting. And what was in my mind was that dieting didn't matter any more...because nothing mattered any more.
The Kennedy assassination was the most stunning shock I had ever experienced. The only blow remotely comparable was my father's death, when I was 11. But Dad had been ill; his health had been failing for two years. This was a bolt from the blue. I had genuinely believed that with modern Secret Service protection, no President of the United States could be assassinated.
I was never able to cry after my father died. I couldn't cry this time either--until, a day or two after the killing, I went to my mother's. Then I fell into her arms and cried as if I'd never stop.
To this day I treasure something Mom gave me a few months later: a small ceramic figurine of a saluting "John-John." For some not-so-obscure reason, I keep it next to a photograph of my own father.
I had cast my first vote in 1960, at age 21. And I'd taken the responsibility of voting very seriously. I didn't vote Democratic because my family always had, or because people from working-class Irish Catholic backgrounds were "supposed to" vote Democratic. I read a book by James Macgregor Burns, which explained that a two-party system always involves a "party of hope" and a "party of memory": one driven more by a vision of the future, the other by the equally worthy goal of preserving the best of the past. I chose the "party of hope," the Democrats.
I gave just as much thought to picking my favorite of the Democratic Presidential candidates. I chose Kennedy because he hailed from the Northeast, because he was youthful and vigorous, but most of all because he impressed me as a tough-minded pragmatist.
I undoubtedly would have voted for him again in 1964. But by the fall of 1963, we'd been getting such an incessant barrage of media coverage of the Kennedys that I'd become a trifle sick of them. On some level, my reaction to the assassination probably involved an element of guilt over having had that feeling.
In the first days after the tragedy, I wanted desperately to believe in Lyndon Johnson.
I don't remember details. But as days and weeks passed, he seemed determined to pour salt in the wounds of those of us who were grieving over President Kennedy. I wound up loathing him, refusing to acknowledge him as President.
I also wound up having nasty suspicions about the assassination.
In 1964, I was a maverick New York State Democrat who voted for Robert Kennedy for Senator--and Barry Goldwater for President.
I idolized Robert Kennedy as I never had his brother. After his assassination during the 1968 Presidential campaign (I had suspicions about that too), I cast a write-in vote for Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
I never supported Richard Nixon; yet I wept for joy when he was elected. For the first time since 1963, there would be a man in the White House whom I could refer to as "the President."
We'll never forget where we were...
I was on the top floor of the tallest building in Albany.
But I was also in another place, a more innocent and trusting place...to which I've never returned.