In recognition of this solemn day, we republish the following article that previously appeared here, with a few edits from the original.
Unless today is their birthday or anniversary, for Americans of my generation, and probably my parents’ generation, too, today’s date, November 22, will always be the Day of the Assassination.
A lot has been said about the role that television played in giving everyone around the world nearly instantaneous access to live images and reportage within hours of the event. For days afterward we were saturated with an around-the-clock immersion in footage from Parkland Hospital, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One, scenes from the Dallas Police Headquarters and the killing of assumed sniper Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. We saw innumerable stories filed by reporters standing on the Grassy Knoll, in front of the Book Depository, from every possible angle. There followed the massive funeral ritual in Washington, D.C. and another succession of images, still and motion, that are emblazoned into the memories of those of us who were old enough to witness them on television.
Even then, 50 years ago, it already was a media-rich world. Photography had been around for more than a hundred years, meaning that our great- or even great-great grand parents grew up in a world in which they were familiar with the sights of the known world: they knew the Pyramids, the Grand Canyon, the castles of Europe and the New York Easter Parade, all viewed by generations in picture books, stereopticon slides and movie theaters. Both radio and recorded sound had been proliferating for more than 50 years; World War II had generated an immense outpouring of audio and still and motion photography, meaning that, at least in moderately developed areas of the world, the citizens of 1963 were accustomed to watching intensive accounts of critical events.
The first big live television broadcast I recall was in 1959. I distinctly recall my mother calling my brother and me out of the front yard to come in and watch the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which was being broadcast as it happened. Why was this a big deal in our house? Because THE QUEEN was there with President Eisenhower! My grandmother — despite having been in the U.S. since 1922 was still about as English as they come — was BESIDE herself. It was THE QUEEN! (Her coronation, in 1953, was the first to be televised ((and in England, the last: Chuck, baby!)), but I know that we did not have a TV then, and, besides, I’m not responsible for remembering things that happened before my 2nd birthday.) There was young Queen Elizabeth, then 33, and good ol’ Ike, declaring all the wonderful things that would accrue to The Commonwealth and their good friends in the Colonies with the completion of the Seaway (and it was a massive engineering accomplishment, by the way). Ike had gone over with a few buddies a little less than 10 years before to help out our good friends in Merrie Olde, and here was Liz paying a nice return visit.
In 1965, there was another television onslaught in our house for Winston Churchill’s funeral, which was also broadcast live (we MAY have had color TV then), which we also watched with my grandmother. I like to remember that. She revered Churchill for his leadership in the War. I cannot adequately tell you how powerful an experience it was to sit there with a woman who, as a young woman had been bombed by zeppelins in Hull in 1915 and ’16, and who had watched in agony the WWII bombing of Britain from America while her sons and daughters served for the U.S. Sir Winston Leonard-Spenser Churchill occupied the pinnacle of her pantheon of heroes.
I believe that citizens of Dallas have come to grips with the association of their city with the JFK assassination. For a long time, it rankled, I know. It’s a fine city, and is full of theaters and museums and thriving with commerce. It could use a hill or two, but the Trinity River threads through a huge green space on its western and southern sides, it has a growing network of public transportation, and, all-in-all, could serve as an emblem of American can-do spirit. It has a great newspaper, whose founding editor, George Dealey, spoke the words that are carved in stone on the publication’s building: “Build the news on the rock of truth and righteousness, conducting it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity, and acknowledging the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.” Try reading that while you’re watching CNN or Fox without laughing out loud or cringing!
I was in Dallas on business a few years ago, and had an opportunity to view the city from the 32nd floor of the Reunion Tower. I had eyes only for an iconic site almost directly below: One that history and the events of one day have made indelible in my memory. (Click on photo for an enlarged view)
That is Dealey Plaza. If you’re at least my age, you recognize it in an instant without my telling you what it is. If you needed a hint, I’d suggest that you focus on the building in the top right corner of the photo; then you’d say, “That’s the Texas School Book Depository.” For Americans of a certain age, it’s one of the most recognizable buildings in America. I won’t need to tell you which way the limousine was traveling, or how the scattered crowd of onlookers appeared as they ducked or ran on that November day. Anyone in Dallas can tell you which window was the one from which Oswald (allegedly, accuracy forces me to say) fired the fatal shots. In my mind, this single scene demonstrates the power of our media-manic age; we have seen this small wedge of ground from every possible angle. We know this ground the way students at the U.S. Army War College know the disposition of forces around Bastogne or the way you know the street you grew up on. There’s a tour bus in that photo, and you could provide the narration as well as the guide was doing as I snapped this shot. On that long-ago November day, we emerged into a new era of immediacy and awareness driven by the power of media, transforming an insignificant corner of a mid-American city into an iconic site.
Today, everything gets documented. The next time you’re watching a clown blow animal balloons at the mall, look around: there’ll be about fifteen people recording it on their cameras and phones. If, instead, the President of the United States were driving by that same spot, there would be a thousand people taping, filming, recording and fifty thousand frames of imagery would be on the Internet by nightfall. It’s impressive to note how many people were actually recording the scene on that undistinguished salient of concrete in 1963. CLICK HERE to read the Wikipedia listing of people who were photographing or filming those few minutes in Dealey Plaza, which lists at least 32 recordings, the most famous, of course, being Abraham Zapruder’s home movie version. Today, how many would there be?
It’s neither the Pyramids nor the Grand Canyon. It’s not a great government center, unforgettable geographic landmark or a work of art or any of the thousands of other images that resonate across cultures and eras. It’s a little ramp of roadway with a bank of green grass on one side made unforgettable in a single instant.
I was 12 years old. Of the more than eighteen thousand days that have passed since then, there are only a handful which I can remember as vividly as that one. Always, until my days end, I’ll be able to answer the inevitable question, the question that binds us all together from that day: “Where were you?”
In a sense, all of us were there, together on the grassy knoll.
© 2010, 2015 Brad Nixon