Where Were You When…?
by Michael Koepf, November 20, 2013
In the fall of 2013, a common question emerges inescapably from the news: “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” Me? I was delivering cans of paint to a store for UPS, a seasonal job I was happy to have. The work helped pay my way through college, although, I wasn’t particularly cheerful that day. The holiday season loomed; deliveries had increased; my brown truck was stacked to the roof and it had to be empty before the sun went down. Also, early that morning as I arrived at work, a guy from the Teamsters Union who looked like Tony Soprano’s unshaved cousin, hit me up for fifty bucks — cash. “Union dues,” he growled. Even though I was a “temp,” I had to fork it up. In 1963 $50 was a lot, and the loss was on my mind as I hefted the box of heavy paint cans into the little store and found the owner and two customers listening closely to the news. The radio was turned up, and as I put the cans on the counter, the owner turned to me with a drained expression on his face. “Have you heard the news?”
We’ve heard the news for 50 years, and now on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, we’re overwhelmed by this news again. “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” is the oft repeated question. And, then there’s all the rest: “Did one shooter really do it? … What about the mess of the Warren Commission report?”
The controversy has raged for years: the endless conspiracy books; screwball movies like JFK, and, perhaps, the most enduring but impossible theme of all — what would have happened if Kennedy lived?
If you’re an American and the essential and vibrant years of your life were lived in the last half of the twentieth century, then you’ve probably asked that question too. I have. However, speculation’s a view of history that’s completely devoid of facts. For the record past and future: what we live is what we have.
So here’s another question that’s not too often asked: “Where were you when Oswald was shot?” I was eating Sunday breakfast in front of my black and white set. The cops hauled Oswald out — bam! Ruby shot him dead. The toast fell out of my mouth, but was that shocking moment the beginning of our progressive age?
Most people don’t recall, but Camelot, as mythicized in the presidency of JFK, was, in fact, a very conservative place. The noble king at the head of the table; gallant knights from Harvard ready to serve some noble cause: civil rights to name just one, which in 1963 meant seeking equality for the Negro race and not as now being bullied in the NFL, the oddest concept in the world.
In the kingdom of JFK, the Cold War could get hot. The Russians schemed in their evil land, which caused Camelot and the commies to send their knights to distant places to fight it out in surrogate wars. Of course, in Camelot, the girls were in the background dressed up in pretty costumes just like Jackie Kennedy was.
Jack Kennedy was a friend to commerce. He knew how America worked. He believed cutting taxes best served the poor by leaving money on the table so that entrepreneurs could create the jobs, a theory that’s currently anathema on NPR. In Camelot, the “welfare state” did not exist. People and their families had to take care of themselves long before legislation buttered their bread, or the cushion farters (bureaucrats) divvied out the dough. It wasn’t perfect; everyone lived with less unless you were very rich just like the Kennedys, but in the kingdom of JFK everyone you knew was responsible for themselves and bound together by this glue: the Constitution and their conscience and ethics they learned in school as well as their temple or church. In the Kingdom of John F. Kennedy, aside from him and Jackie, only movie stars were hip.
Enter Harvey Oswald, the self-taught, Marxist punk. In the media mnemonics surrounding the 50th anniversary of November 23rd, the essentials of Oswald’s essence will, once more, be swept away and under the rug. Let a thousand conspiracies blossom: Oswald was just a patsy; right wingers shot JFK; the mafia did it; Ruby killed Oswald to cover it up, and, hey, what about LBJ? He had the most to gain. My favorite repeated notion that comes up every year on November 23rd is that with the Death of President Kennedy, somehow, America lost its innocence, which is to say that before the murder of the president, Americans lived in a cloud-land of political bliss. What about the Civil War; the Robber Barons or TeaPot Dome; the violent struggles of union labor, or the Great Depression? What about D-Day? There’s nothing innocent there. There is no age of innocence when it comes to the human heart. This loss of innocence theory with the end of JFK is usually sentimentalized by aging baby boomers who were in their teens and twenties when President Kennedy was killed. What they’re really saying is this: I was young and innocent then…before I got naked at the love-in; chopped my first line, or cheated with someone else. Guilt is never a fall from innocence unless we seek excuse.
However, there is a before and after when it comes to Kennedy’s death. If legacy is the measure, what remains of JFK’s? Kennedy was a glib Adonis; an inspirational president if there ever was. He was, undoubtedly, the first president of the media era who understood that appearance trumps everything else. The Bay of Pigs was his fiasco, but he stood up to the Russians over the missiles they placed in Cuba, because, as a veteran of World War Two, Kennedy understood that a president needed brains but also needed guts in this very dangerous world. Would he have escalated in Vietnam? Assisted by a fawning press, his involvement is nearly erased. However, I recall that day when Kennedy was first elected. I was in Special Forces stationed on Okinawa. We went to morning formation in our regulation “lids,” but were ordered to take them off and put on our green berets. Orders from the top, we were Kennedy’s chosen boys, and all too soon it happened: studying CIA reports; learning French for Vietnam and training Diem’s thugs. Would Kennedy have made a difference when it came to the bigger war? Like I said, speculation breeds no facts, but with Goldwater as his next opponent, it’s doubtful that Kennedy would back away from that domino that he set. On the plus side, although late to join the parade, Kennedy beat the drum for civil rights and trued hard to lower taxes, although after Kennedy’s death, LBJ cajoled and threatened to make these issues work. Kennedy’s before was what he was: a man who loved his country and did the best he could in the traditions of what he was.
On the other hand, what about Oswald’s legacy? What has he left behind? Nothing, most will say — the grave he well deserved, but, oddly and ironically, Lee Harvey lingers on in the ghost of what he was. Oswald was a committed “lefty” perhaps way ahead of his times. Idiot Oswald moved to Russia because he believed it was a better place. When he fled back to America, Castro became his hero no matter who he killed. Augmented with self-importance, and self-anointed as a “Marxist,” Oswald’s was against America, which he believed was the most corrupt country in the world — a theme we often hear today with a subtle wink and nod from the so-called, progressive crowd. Occupy Wall Street anyone?
Oswald’s delusion was this: somewhere up in the clouds, somewhere someplace else, maybe only in his head, there was a better system of governance where everything would be fair. Yes, everything will be fair and level as soon as the intelligent take control to make it fair for all of us. Have we heard this theme before? Have we read about the Gulags? Do you know about Robespierre? There was nothing new about Oswald until he was known to us. However, looking back to '63, that’s when everything changed, because when Oswald pulled the trigger collective civility fell to earth. If you murder a president — the symbol of what we are, the final authority of a nation — you can do whatever you want. Oswald was a symbol and a signal to let it all hang out. Giddy-up, Libertine America was off to the races and that horse still races on.
After Kennedy was buried in Arlington to become an American myth beneath an eternal flame, Oswald lay in Dallas under a growth of modest grass. But whose flame still burns today? Spurred on by opposition to a war, by 1965, the times they were a-changing as student protests heated up. A sense of rebellion was in the air, and if you were young in those years, just like Harvey Oswald, you were emboldened with the notion that you could do whatever you want. Drugs came on the scene; music blossomed forth; sex was everywhere and you had to save the world in order to save your ass and not go to Vietnam. These were the experiences and thoughts of certain budding minds on the campus of every college. And, as is often the case with budding minds, nurturing was in store to water these growing buds.
Seething with righteous persecution from their dark McCarthy years, the old American left was ready for the task. By 1968, on the campuses of our future leaders, there were Marxist socialists everywhere. There was outright hatred of the country; there were cheers for Fidel Castro and copies of the Little Red Book. The ghost of Harvey Oswald had a lot of friends.
The students of yesterday became the leaders of right now. Of course, none claim to be a Marxist, a silly, antiquated word, but in the collective spirit of state and media, they dominate our lives. Taxes, laws and regulations, unless expressed in a fresh tattoo, individuality has no chance. If one complains, the PC cops are on your ass or you’re singled out by the IRS. The state can raise your kids; the state can give you food, and if they fix the mess, they will give you a doc for free. Unfortunately, if you don’t agree with them, they’ll re-interpret a regulation to make your life a hell. Soft socialism is what we’ve got in the name of the ruling class who in this day and age are registered Democrat. Ask not what you can do for your country, but watch out for what your country will do to you.
Happy dead day Harvey Oswald, you’re not as dead as we thought.