It was early evening, a little after 6:30pm on Friday 22nd November 1963. I was at my boarding school (The Leys School) in Cambridge sitting with friends in our study (a small room four of us shared). There was a commotion outside and we heard our Head of House Dave Carter limping noisily along the corridor. Dave had been disabled by polio and had a calliper on one leg so he didn’t move quietly. “Have you heard? Have you heard? Kennedy’s been shot !”
Now they say we all remember where we were when JFK was assassinated . We had a large steam radio in the study and it was often tuned to AFN – the American Forces Network which had a strong signal in the Cambridge area because of the US Forces stationed nearby. We turned it on. AFN had a reporter in Dallas and commentators in Washington. We were plugged right in to the American media.
In my lifetime only 9/11 has equalled the shock of that moment. We said little and just listened. I had been preparing for a trip to London the following day visiting the “Leysian Mission” , the schools charity. The trip went ahead. It was my seventeenth birthday.
The Sixties were a time of change and though in 1963 they weren’t quite “swinging” yet young people often only a few years older than my friends and me were full of confidence and irreverence. Some of us had seen “Beyond the Fringe” a couple of years earlier. We had also welcome the brilliant, acerbic and iconoclastic “That Was The Week That Was” that had been running for about a year. TW3 challenged our parents generation, and we loved it.
John Kennedy seemed to symbolise change. He was actually only a year younger than my father but his image was more my generation than Dad’s. TW3 responded to the assassination brilliantly with a measured but unsentimental tribute and Millicent Martin sang the swiftly put together “A Young Man Rode with his Head Held High under the Dallas sun”. It had echoes of “High Noon” but was no parody.
I went to London as planned on the Saturday and phoned home when I was there and spoke to my mother. We never mentioned the assassination, it was just too painful I think.
It’s pretty rare for the world to pause in shock and maybe it’s only been possible in the television age. The images hold our attention and the commentators, like the great Walter Cronkite, who announced Kennedy’s death, are our link to the existential moment. The immediacy was shocking – again paralleled only by 9/11 I think.
Conspiracy theories only flourish when the truth is too difficult to believe. There was no social media on 11/22 and the crazy theories took a while to emerge. The truth was more prosaic. A complex and confused lone killer had a rifle and a place by a high window in a tall building. And changed the course of history.