There were lots of things we didn't know when the sun came up 30
years ago today.
We knew the President had sent 16,500 troops to Vietnamwherever
that wasbut we didn't know there'd be a half-million there in a few
years and that more than 50,000 names would end up on a black wall.
We didn't know about presidential philandering so prodigious that
mistresses would later report hanky-panky in the Lincoln bedroom.
We'd never heard of Chappaquiddick, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan,
Jack Ruby, and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Hardly anyone knew who Aristotle Onassis was.
We had no idea that the next day's football gameNebraska would
defeat Oklahoma 29-20 to win its first Big Eight championship in 23
yearswould seem so trivial.
And we wouldn't know until dusk how Jacqueline Kennedy would look
in the pink dress befouled with her husband's gore, as she attended
Lyndon Johnson's swearing in aboard Air Force One.
When the sun came up on Nov. 22, 1963, political assassination was
something from another time more primitive than ours, from another place
more barbaric. Despite Medgar Evers' murder a few months earlier,
nearly everyone knew that.
We thought we knew lots then, but we were children.
What we certainly knew that morning was that Jack and Jackie
Kennedy were the most beautiful people who'd ever lived in the White
House. Not just movie-star beautiful, but possessors of beautiful charm
and wit, wearers of beautiful clothes, sailers of beautiful sailboats in
front of beautiful seaside estates.
And the President, we knew, was a smiling philosopher-king, a
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and speaker of beautiful wordsalthough
some Nebraskans guessed that Ted Sorenson was responsible for most of
"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe
alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of
Americans. . . ."
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as
the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution. The heart of
the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights
and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow
Americans as we want to be treated."
And so forth.
Even those who voted for Nixon were dazzled by the words.
Living, walking, talking objets d'art they were, the President and
the First Lady. Jackie, she of the porcelain skin and the impeccable
taste, had White House dinners for Nobel Prize winners and the President
would make them all laugh by saying witty things like "There hasn't been
so much talent in this room since Thomas Jefferson sat here alone."
And of course their babies, Caroline and John-John, were as
esthetically pleasing as their parentsgravely peering out from under
and around White House furniture while their parents watched, tickled
pink by what their genes had brought forth.
The Truth, Mainly
I was 29 years old then, a smart aleck English instructor without
enough respect for my students' knowledge. So when one of them
interrupted my Friday lunch (a thermos of leftover ham and beans, a
piece of cold buttered cornbread, five carrot sticks and a green onion),
I didn't believe he knew what he was talking about. He had a lunatic
look in his eye.
"They shot Kennedy," he told me and two other teachers at a table
in the Student Center, and he kept walking right on out the door.
What could a C- student possibly know about such things? Who shot
Kennedy? What Kennedy? What shot? Shot how? Don't be silly.
Still, we were curious enough to get up from our table and go to
the television set at the other end of the room where a knot of students
were watching Walter Cronkite. It wasn't the right time of day for
Walter Cronkite. And his voice wasn't quite under control.
After he told us the President was dead, I picked up my half-full
thermos of beans, my crumbs of cornbread, the two remaining carrot
sticks and the green onion with one bite out of it, and walked back to
my office. It was easy to tell those who knew from those just getting
out of noon class. The ones just out of class were talking and laughing.
I called my wife. Yes, she'd just heard on the radio. I told her
I'd call off my afternoon class and come home. It seemed important to
When I got there, we watched television until it was time to put
our own two babies down for their naps. Then we went to our bedroom,
lay down on our bed, and stared at the ceiling, wide-eyed as children
waking from pleasant dreams to find out this is the way it is.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.