When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, I was just a little girl of 8 years. I vividly remember how I found out about it. A neighbor girl came running across the street from her house to mine. I was on my way to meet her. It was in the middle of the street that I heard the news…our President had been assassinated. I was horrified, like most Americans were that day. It all seemed too impossible to comprehend. I knew nothing of politics back then, of course, I just knew that something horrible had happened to my country…the whole country. A nation doesn’t lose a president for any reason and not suffer from that loss. The loss of the president…the only president lost during office in my entire lifetime…not that attempts weren’t made or threatened, was so shocking to me. It’s something I will never forget.
After the assassination, there was much controversy about what happened. Immediately…as always happens when anything big happens, there is a special commission appointed to find out what happened. I can see how that is important sometimes, but I don’t know that I think these commissions are always unbiased. As with most events such as these, there were, and still are, many people who do not think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone…or that he was even involved at all. Seven days after the assassination, Johnson appointed the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy to investigate Kennedy’s death, and on this day, September 24, 1964, the Warren Commission, headed up by Chief Justice Earl Warren, gave their report to President Lyndon B Johnson, who had been vice-president to President Kennedy, and therefore became president upon his death.
Following the report, those who disagreed thought that the whole thing was a conspiracy. The conspiracy theories were many, including the Mob, Cuban exiles, military leaders, the secret service, and even Lyndon Johnson. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald was the “lone gunman” in the assassination, but that failed to satisfy some who witnessed the attack and others whose research found conflicting details in the commission’s report. Critics of the Warren Commission’s report believed that additional ballistics experts’ conclusions and a home movie shot at the scene disputed the theory that three bullets fired from Oswald’s gun could have caused Kennedy’s fatal wounds as well as the injuries to Texas Governor John Connally, who was riding with the president in an open car as it traveled through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza that day. Eventually, another congressional investigation was conducted in 1979, but that committee reached the same conclusion as the Warren Commission. During its almost year-long investigation, the Warren Commission reviewed reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, Department of State and the attorney general of Texas. It also pored over Oswald’s personal history, political affiliations and military record. The Warren Commission listened to the testimony of 552 witnesses and even traveled to Dallas several times to visit the site where Kennedy was shot.
The enormous volume of documentation from the investigation was placed in the National Archives and much of it is now available to the public. Access to Kennedy’s autopsy records, though, are highly restricted. To view them requires membership in a presidential or congressional commission or the permission of the Kennedy family. I am one of those who find the conclusion of the Warren Commission to be…very simplistic, and hard to believe. I have watched several documentaries about the assassination, including the video of the actual event, and it just doesn’t make sense. Be that as it may, the commissions have spoken, and nothing more will ever be done about it. The many people involved are all gone now, so there is no one to say what really happened. So we only know what we have been told, but most of it doesn’t make sense to me.
When something earth shattering happens, people tend to talk about that moment a lot. They seem always to remember where they were, and what they were doing. September 11, 2001 found me at home because my girls would be bringing their children over before school. I was getting ready for work, and I would drop the kids off at school before I went to work. My daughters had to be to work an hour earlier than I did. When my daughter, Corrie Petersen came in, she was on the phone with her husband, Kevin and she said, “The World Trade Center is on fire…and so is the Pentagon!” My mind couldn’t comprehend how that could be. I said, “How can that be…they are nowhere near each other?” It was just like finding out that President Kennedy had been shot on the street outside our home, when a friend told us as we went outside to play. These kinds of events and what we were doing when…are almost seared into our brains.
That was the way it was for my great aunt, Bertha Schumacher and her sister, Elsa. Bertha writes that she and Elsa were ironing clothes when the news came over the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. She writes that they were dumb-founded because the ambassador from Japan had just visited FDR…talking peace! It was a moment that should have taught our nation that it is unwise to trust human beings without reservation…but we are slow to learn that, and so things have happened again and again. For people like my great aunts and me, I think it is disheartening that these things happen within our own borders. For Aunt Bertha, it became a time to be chronicled. She believed that it was important for people to be able to read “simple, unvarnished accounts” of how people felt when these earth shattering events took place.
For my dad, World War II became a life changing event. He went from being a 20 year old young man, to a Top Turret Gunner and Flight Engineer in a matter of months. He had never kept big secrets from his family, and didn’t later on either, but during the war his letters had to be guarded. He couldn’t say too much because the security of their squadron and many others depended on absolute secrecy. He also had to be guarded because he didn’t want to worry his mother. He felt such a need to protect her from worry, and she, knowing what war really was all about tried to keep him from knowing that she was indeed worrying. No matter how hard we try not to be, we were affected by the events surrounding our lives, whether they are personal or environmental.
I know that for me, that sense of security that existed pre-September 11th, is missing. I know that an attack is possible, and that there are within our borders, people who want to destroy this nation. The United States of America is too amazing to think that events like these could take it down, but if freedom and security aren’t protected, they could do just that. When I think of Aunt Bertha and Aunt Elsa hearing about the war on television on December 7, 1941, and how frightening that must have seemed…how anguished they must have felt, I find myself thinking how awful that must have been. I have lived through several wars in my lifetime, but not a world war…although I think it is coming. I wish there could be less earth shattering moments, but I don’t think we have seen the last of them.