by Jean Swearingen, November 20, 2013
I was on my way to eighth grade math class, in the makeshift middle school in Dixon, in Solano County (four years after my family moved away from Boonville). Because we didn’t actually have a school building of our own, which was remedied several years later, named after C.A. (Chris) Jacobs, the long-time teacher who taught language arts for many years, including my two years there, we utilized classrooms in both the high school, where my older brother had attended classes before graduating in June of 1962, and the upper (intermediate) grade school where my mother taught fourth grade. As I made my way to the classroom, I couldn’t help but notice the tear-streaked faces of my classmates, sending me an emphatic message that something was terribly wrong.
Upon arrival at my math class, the message came over the intercom, loud and clear: “The president has just been shot.” Although our math teacher did his best to reassure us, it was abundantly clear to all of us that something had gone horribly awry — something that, as we learned over the next five decades, could never be “fixed” by a teacher’s or parent’s feeble attempts at convincing us that everything was going to be OK. The date was November 22, 1963 — it wasn’t going to be OK then, and it still isn’t now, 50 years later. As adolescents, we were in a state of shock from which most, if not all, of us have never recovered. All of our illusions of safety and protection had been irrevocably shattered, and we were left with feelings of intense vulnerability and helplessness, and a sense that the “American Dream” had eluded our grasp forever.
At the elementary school in Ukiah where I am currently employed, one of the teachers had left copies of a JFK worksheet with factoids about the 35th (and youngest) president, with a crossword puzzle reiterating those factoids about his administration, near the copier. It included information about his family, his founding of the Peace Corps, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, his face-offs against Khrushchev and Castro, and the oft-quoted reference to his administration as the American equivalent of “Camelot.” Sunday’s Ukiah Daily Journal also ran a full-page account of several local residents’ reminiscences of that fatal day that occurred 50 years ago.
I doubt that few would question that the most definitive film account of the “conspiracy” (if, indeed, as many believe, there truly was one) is the movie JFK, with its a-list of all-star celebrities. There are, however, many more accounts, in film and on Broadway, that pose many alternative viewpoints to this significant historical event of which any of us born in the 1950s or earlier still have fairly vivid memories. The 2009 film An American Affair features a story line in which Catherine Caswell (portrayed by Gretchen Mol) is both a former CIA agent and mistress of JFK, whose story is told through the eyes of her 13-year-old neighbor, Adam Stafford (portrayed by Cameron Bright), with whom she develops an unlikely friendship. One of the final scenes in the film depicts Adam sitting in his living room watching Jack Ruby on TV break through a supposedly impenetrable police line to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald at point blank range, an event that I remember viewing myself all too clearly when I was exactly the same age as Adam. Words do not even begin to suffice to explain how surreal that experience was.
The 1974 film The Parallax View, set in Seattle, and starring Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss as news reporters, deals with a multi-national corporation whose sole purpose is to recruit and train political assassins. I have attempted, on several occasions, to obtain a copy of the film, to no avail. Coincidence? I seriously doubt it. In the Robert Altman film Nashville (filmed within 50 miles of where my mother grew up), the one Catholic character in the cast, a Kennedy supporter, comments on the anti-Catholic sentiment in the South, and how it is highly unlikely that there is no correlation between the fact that Kennedy was our first Catholic president and that he was killed in a Southern state. Ironically, I have always been cognizant of the fact that Catholicism is “the tie that binds” the Irish and the Italians — Peter Lawford (a Kennedy by marriage) was a card-carrying member of the elite Hollywood group known as “The Rat Pack,” of which Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were charter members.
Finally, there is the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Assassins, which is a musical overview of political, particularly presidential, assassins throughout history. I was fortunate enough to see a live production a few years ago, presented at the Harbor Theatre in Suisun by Solano Community College in Fairfield, whose theatre department receives substantial support from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. In preparation for the production, I visited two local bookstores in search of original soundtracks from previous productions. I found two: one from a Broadway production and another from a more well-known off-Broadway production, featuring Victor Garber, Debra Monk (both of whom had starring roles in the Disney remake of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man) and Patrick Cassidy, son of Shirley Jones, who played Marion Paroo in the original movie version of The Music Man.
The off-Broadway version contained one song that was not on the Broadway version — a tribute to slain American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Since I had given the former to a friend, I had not heard that particular song. As expected, I was not alone when the theatre suddenly became flooded with sobs of remembrance and regret.