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Memories of JFK: Even going home didn’t ease the pain

Jerome Mireault/The Globe and Mail

It was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His death still evokes strong memories and his legacy remains strong.

I was strolling back from lunch to my office on the fourth floor of the General Motors Building in Detroit on that ordinary Friday afternoon in November, and stepped into the elevator to confront pandemonium; the usual murmured small talk had exploded into an excited crossfire of garbled bulletins – Dallas, gunshots, JFK.

What had happened? I think I already knew, but meanwhile I mobilized every iota of denial I could. Maybe it was all just hysterical babble, people jumping to conclusions on flimsy evidence, piecing together fragments to make a scary story.

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At the fourth floor, I stepped out, took the next down elevator, and hurried to a nearby parking lot to tune in the radio news for something more authoritative, in the privacy and safety of my only sanctuary: my car.

I had moved to the United States from Toronto a year earlier. Great career opportunity, fresh start, new adventure; only later did I realize that what had helped in no small way to lure me south was the idea of a soft, warm landing in JFK's New Frontier.

The election of 1960 marked the first time in memory that anybody much under 30 could identify with the American presidency: John F. Kennedy was so young, so hip, such a liberation from all those constipated-looking geezers in homburgs and three-piece suits. By who he wasn't as much as who he was, JFK uncorked a jolt of energy that helped to launch America's first genuine wave of idealism since the Second World War – the Peace Corps, the space program, the first stirrings of serious civil-rights reform. The country was moving toward some hazy but unarguably brighter future, and taking a lot of the rest of the world with it.

And then the voices on the car radio shattered my flimsy cocoon of denial: Some low-life crackpot had fired his cheap carbine – and blasted JFK and the New Frontier and the sun itself into blackness. It wouldn't have much surprised me in those first moments if gravity itself had been suspended.

I didn't know what to do with my brain: What do you think about in the presence of the unthinkable? You don't think. You work at not thinking. It's harder than it sounds.

Talking to other people could only inflame my panic and confirm what I was still half-pretending hadn't happened. I drove around aimlessly for a while, but being alone with my thoughts was giving me the creeps, so I eventually skulked home to join the community of millions clinging to Walter Cronkite on the television screen, expecting ... comfort? Company? Or maybe – still leaning on the crutch of denial – some bulletin declaring it all a hoax.

No such childish deliverance came. The Friday afternoon dragged on hour by hour as the true scale of the tragedy sank in and the media's relentless Chinese water torture of assassination minutiae dripped on and on until, finally, my brain was blunted enough to exhaust the anxiety and let me sleep.

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Even meteorology co-operated with the grotesquerie: I awoke to a grey and rainy Saturday – the only possible setting for the sorriest time America had experienced since Abraham Lincoln was shot. It wasn't worth even thinking about finding a distraction. Lee Harvey Oswald and his heinous deed would follow you into a bar, the movie theatre, the dinner party, like a snake.

I was swanning around at the time in a white Chevrolet Corvette convertible – a sports car, for god's sake, turned in the instant of the murder into a stupid showboat. I might as well have been wearing a clown suit. What right did I have to be sashaying about in something so tastelessly "fun," when a president lay dead and even unsentimental Detroit was shrouded in mourning?

By midday Saturday, I was slinking through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel in the Corvette and headed home to Canada, that benign dominion where nothing horrible ever had or ever could happen. As a Canadian I could declare immunity to it all; escaping there would allow me to slip out from under the monster of evil enveloping America, creating psychic distance enough to cushion me from the pain.

A cowardly, futile gesture, of course. Windsor and Canada were reeling in grief every bit as much as Detroit and America. Those dotted lines and that different colour on the map were no protection, no relief.

I had driven out from Windsor into the countryside and parked the Corvette at some roadside clearing near Amherstburg, on the river, as rain pelted the windows through the darkening afternoon. CBC Radio was playing dirges between brief reports of arrangements for a state funeral, the ascent of that classless Texas hick LBJ, info-bits about Lee Harvey Oswald, ad nauseam.

The surcease I'd sought was an illusion. After a feckless hour or two, I gave up and gave in. The world's largest undefended border had proved no defence. I shoved the Corvette into gear and drove back to Detroit, as slowly as I could.

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Bruce McCall is a writer and illustrator living in New York City.

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