The Truth, Mainly - 11/22/1993

Finding out the Way it is — 30 years ago
by Leon Satterfield

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 Vietnam—wherever that was—but 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 game—Nebraska would defeat Oklahoma 29-20 to win its first Big Eight championship in 23 years—would 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 words—although some Nebraskans guessed that Ted Sorenson was responsible for most of them:

"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 parents—gravely peering out from under and around White House furniture while their parents watched, tickled pink by what their genes had brought forth.

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 come home.

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.

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