Opinion » Bill Cope

The Day Kennedy Was Shot


When such a thing happens, you don't just remember where you were, what you were doing. You remember the sun came through the windows to your left and the classroom was warm. You remember being hungry--it was almost lunch hour--and then after the PA speaker cracked out that numbing announcement, you remember being suddenly not hungry. You remember your teacher--red-haired, red-faced Mr. Grosdidier--turning so white he looked blue, slumping over and grasping his desk like he'd been slammed in the gut.

You remember how the kids around you reacted, how you looked to them for how maybe you should react because you weren't sure. This was new. There had been no drills, ever, on what to do for something like this. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Not to you. Not to the other kids. Not to Mr. Grosdidier.

You remember the confusion, You remember being sent home for reasons you didn't quite grasp, and how quiet it was on the bus because nobody, not even the driver, could grasp any more of it than you. You remember things your mother said, hushed, when you got home. The tremble she couldn't keep out of her voice. Your father frozen in time before the television, transfixed by the gray flood of images and the babel of sorrow flowing back and forth like aftershocks across the nation. The nation--which, until that day, you hadn't given much thought to.

You remember how over the following hours it began to sink in, that a fundamental something--a bedrock of the American soul--had shifted. And over the following days, all tethered to that day like the aftermath of a great catastrophe, you remember thinking how all those grown-ups you watched in Dallas, in Washington, at home--the very people you'd been trusting to run the world smoothly--were as confused, as lost as you.

You remember America coming to a stop. A muted, cold November stop. You remember wondering if it would ever get moving again, after such a thing. Then you remember that in some way you didn't understand then and don't understand even now, 50 years on, how that little, little boy saluting that sad, sad caisson meant that maybe it was over. That maybe the great catastrophe had run its course.

Over the following months, melting into the following years, rather than fading away like nightmares should, you remember a lingering heaviness on the land, a melancholy that to this day is never entirely absent when you think of your nation. Even now, you have never stopped wondering how one man could have left such an unretractable mark on your country.

Eventually, you came to wonder if the man who left the more unretractable mark, the man who so deeply haunts this motherland of yours still, is the Jack man, or the Lee man.

I don't think of it so much as a conspiracy, but as a mystery that's never been resolved into a satisfactory denouement. I can't pretend to know if there was a plot of vast dimensions, or the demented actions of a few disgruntled madmen. All I know is, I simply cannot accept that Oswald did it by himself.

But deciding (as did a 1978 investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations) that there was more than one person behind Jack's murder does not require I assume the involvement of some malevolent and powerful presence. The military-industrial complex, the CIA, the Soviets, the Mafia, Castro, the anti-Castro fanatics... all of these have been suggested, and motives have been theorized for each of them.

Yet it is the details of what happened within a few seconds that day in Dealey Plaza that have left me (and millions like me) hungry for answers we can accept without stretching our credulity beyond its limits. Yes, we might accept that the shots came only from the book depository... if it weren't for dozens of onlookers convinced they heard shots from the grassy knoll, including at least 21 Dallas cops who swarmed to that spot, certain they would find an assassin there.

Yes, we might accept that it's not unusual for viscera--brain matter--to extrude from the entry wound rather than the exit wound... if it weren't for what the Zapruder film showed us--a violent jerk backwards, indicting the blow came from the front.

Yes, we might accept that Oswald was undoubtedly the killer... if it weren't for a cop seeing him 90 seconds after the shots were fired, six floors below where the fingerprint-free rifle was found, calmly drinking a Coke.

Yes, we might accept the conclusion of the Warren Commission, that one bullet could puncture two men a total of four times--ripping flesh and smashing bones--and remain virtually unscathed... if it weren't for our own intuitions telling us, This is bullshit!

And that's the thing, even 50 years later: So many of the paths urging us to accept Oswald's solitary guilt are so convoluted, so torturous, so contrived, that it's easier to go with our own sense of what makes sense than it is to swallow the official version. Yet even today, we are dismissed as deluded, conspiracy nuts, incapable of absorbing the truth that one stunted troll could so utterly destroy not only a shining giant, but his vision.

With more time, it will all fade, I suppose. Not only will the memories dim, but also the mystery. Those children sent home on that sunny day are passing on, one by one. And when the last one of us is gone, so too will be the hunger for answers--the greatest of which will always be, "What might have been..."