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by Philip Martin | November 22, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

One of the things that makes us human is the conviction that we are more than our biologies. It takes a mind of Nietzschean steel to utterly dismiss mystery as the tickling of neurons beneath a cupola of bone. For most of us, the past exists, though we cannot say exactly where.

Memory is unreliable; we all have some impossible memories, others that are merely jumbled.

Did I know what Dallas was? I remember wearing footed flannel pajamas; was I home sick from kindergarten with chicken pox? Was the day tungsten gray and flinty, with dirty snow on the ground?

Memory is a bad witness, unreliable, prone to confabulation and self-dramatization. I remember a stirring in the air, a patch of silver sizzling in the corner. We were living in a split-level duplex, painted yellow, on an Air Force base in upstate New York. It was before the day I took the shortcut home from school, through the backyards, and a German shepherd chased me home. It was three days after my fifth birthday: Nov. 22, 1963.

I know that at 2:37 p.m., Walter Cronkite nervously fiddled with his eyeglasses and spoke the words, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash--apparently official--President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time an hour ago ..."

Did I know who Cronkite was? Did I know what a president was? Do I have a memory of the original broadcast--did I watch it, or have I patched together something from dozens of viewings of the videotape?

For years, I thought I had seen the assassination live on television. This was not possible; there was no television coverage. That was before men with cameras shadowed the president on every mundane mission, recording each exposure to the public on the ghoulish chance that something bad might happen.

It wasn't until years later I saw Abraham Zapruder's home movie, its blown-up frames grainy and garish. And it wasn't until many years after that that I stood in Dealey Plaza and took Occam's Razor to all the conspiracy theories. It was not that hard a shot.

I see myself in the scene; a child viewed from behind, sitting before a scratchy gray maw, bathed in electronic gray murder. I know it's not the truth, but it is what I remember.

I was at home, sick, smelling of Campbell's chicken noodle soup, when JFK was shot. That is my story, confirmed by my mother.

I know a man who was walking across Harvard Square when some girl ran past him crying; he went to see what was wrong and she told him. I know a woman who was in her high school civics class. Another friend, now deceased, had been in the newsroom of the Dallas Morning News.

I am always astounded to meet people--full-grown men and women--who have no answer to that question, who have no trickster memory of America before the bloody present era. I don't know whether they are to be envied or not; they have grown up in a world that was substantially different from the one the rest of us came up in.

They do not remember a day when all the adults were stricken; the zombie days of '63. I remember riding in the car with my parents through a shut-down town, half-staff flags snapping dully above colorless vacant-looking businesses. Whatever pain there was was blunt and heavy and communal, diffused through millions yet still tangible, a nut of grief in the back of every throat.

I've heard stories that in some parts of the country children cheered when they heard the news, but I didn't believe them until people I trusted told me they were there. I know we are these days capable of that sort of meanness--it's a growth industry upon which you can build your political movement--but I could not imagine children acted that way then.

We were all bewildered.

It is difficult to talk about a martyr (martyr? martyred for what?). There is a way of looking at John Kennedy that will lead you to the conclusion he was a centrist Democrat of unremarkable credentials whose political success was largely due to a surfeit of personal charisma and great gobs of daddy's money.

There is another way of thinking about Kennedy that might cause you to believe the man was a hypocrite and a hustler; a playboy who lacked the intellectual rigor to fulfill his considerable potential. There are those who will tell you Kennedy was a fraud and a weakling and was far from a great man.

Though his bones have been picked by opportunists as varied as Mark Lane and Seymour Hersh, JFK remains a part of a national mythology. His function is more cultural than political; he is all the more potent for having died young and pretty, the first rock star president, James Dean in the White House, trim and well married with a shock of Hollywood-unruly hair.

He had the good fortune to be born wealthy and in that narrow window that made it possible for him to be adored by television and immune to journalistic intrigues. He benefited from the coziness of elite reporters who followed him and from the cameras that caressed his upper-middle-class bone structure. The bullets that ripped through him killed him, but they also provided the strobe flash that burned his handsome, boyish, vigorous image into America's scrapbook of iconic images.

JFK, no matter who he was, is the fallen king, and his story is now an American legend. Not the first president to be murdered, but the first to be murdered, if not on TV, in the TV age. Lesser countries would have splintered, the army would have mobilized and the woods would have filled with desperate, dangerous men. But America purred on, sadder and wiser.

Maybe poor Oswald thought he killed the king, that his murder would have consequences beyond the personal. It didn't work out that way; the revolution didn't come. Oswald was deserted on the beach, and only the impetuous act of another lonely actor saved him from the indignity of jurisprudence.

We have made up fantastic stories about the assassination because we need to believe it means something when people die, especially when those people are famous or pretty or young. We cannot quite accept the idea that any little man with a gun can squeeze off a shot and divert. All Oswald had to do was make use of the opportunity presented him; he didn't botch the job even after the first bullet whistled by, cutting harmlessly through the air.

Believe what you want, I will not argue with you. But it was Oswald, the dirty-necked pipsqueak, the marginal man asserting himself, as marginal men now and then will.

He took his time with the third shot and blew the world apart. It wasn't difficult. He found the seam and waited for his chance.

Sometimes the truth is as simple and as unbelievable as that. Pop ... pop ... pop.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

Print Headline: 11/22/63


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