Tonawanda News

November 22, 2013

The black-and-white pentimento

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — My memories are strong enough, in some cases, so that I have no need of any more research. I did not require, for example, the recent PBS biography of Jimi Hendrix to better understand his contribution to society or to my quality of life, so I did not watch it. You get that way as you get older.

Today we note the 50th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, and will likely do so the way we did it in November 1963, by watching television. Contrary to the thoughts of modern reporters, it was not a day that changed America; contrary to later hordes of finger-wagging conservatives and religious hard-liners, it was not the day all the snakes in the closet of America’s psyche came out, and there followed generations of turmoil.

It was a heck of a day, but America was already on a path of misguided renewal of sorts. Think of what came after Kennedy’s death and before the 1960s ended — Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, colleges as cauldrons of social experimentation, the rise of sport at the expense of art — and note the seeds were planted in the early ‘60s, or earlier.

Aldous Huxley also passed away on Nov. 22, 1963, as did C.S. Lewis and 63 people in a Fitchville, Ohio, nursing home fire, but they weren’t on television. What changed in America was the public approval to turn on the television in times of national crisis. (Or comity; the 1976 bicentennial was broadcast on television as well, as newspaper editors made certain they could spell “joyous,” a word seldom included in headlines.)

After Kennedy’s death, crises seemed to mount in America, largely because of improvements to, and increased stature of, television news. Ratings of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and the rest stayed strong after the assassination story wound down. America mourned its fallen president by welcoming the Beatles and taking its news more seriously (which is a way of saying that things have always been this bad, we just know more of it). 

All this week the media has treated us to where-are-they-now stories of the players in the 1963 Dallas and Washington weekend. Memories are restored, names we thought we’d forgotten surface and of course we are reminded of theories, of conspiracy and of incompetence and of lunacy.

If you lived through it, you will not forget it and need no reminder, which is why I have avoided these pseudo-news stories all week, the report by someone too young to remember it, featuring the one or more who do. 

If you did not live through it, you will not understand the shock it brought to a relatively complacent nation, since you’re likely inured to regularly seeing video of unfolding tragedies that would reduce previous generations to tears. 

What you will understand, though, is that the Kennedy assassination was America’s first unified rush to turn on the television at the first sign of emergency, to better understand what’s going on. Prior to that weekend the television news industry was rarely praised for doing anything correctly. 

For the record, I had just turned 13 and was in an elementary school assembly, watching a slide show on the topic of opportunities available at Buffalo vocational high schools. The whispering of teachers, walking in and out, got me imagining someone had been hit by a car outside the school; then a thought of a smiling President Kennedy, sitting upright in a hospital bed. 

Then we were taken to our home rooms. Then we were told. Then we were released. Then I went home and had black-and-white images, of Lincoln limousines and pink pillbox hats and hands stifling tears, burned into my brain and imagination, all weekend. They have stayed there, no matter what I layer onto them, like a scar or other souvenir of growing up and getting older.

We revisit these matters every time we feel like it, every time someone has a theory he thinks he can defend, about what did or did not happen. Whenever a Kennedy runs for office it is made clear the candidate is or is not connected to the motorcade in Dallas or what’s become known as the “family compound.” 

The media is in overdose mode this week (it’s also the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address but NBC News wasn’t there with movie cameras. Hence…). I’m avoiding it. I lived through it and need not live though it again. 

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Ken-Ton Record. Contact him at