My father made eye contact with John F. Kennedy as the motorcade left Love Field. Dad waved, and the president — in that split second as he sat in the back of the open top Lincoln convertible — looked at my father and waved back.
Within 45 minutes, Kennedy was dead, Camelot was over, and a period of anger and distrust in government that continues today had begun.
Things seemed much simpler on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, a day that is being commemorated with documentaries, TV specials, and a variety of books that try to capture and tell the story of the assassination of our nation’s 35th president.
In reality, no one can tell the whole story about an event that defined an entire generation. I didn’t learn everything about my dad’s Kennedy sighting — something he recounted time and again as one of the defining moments of his life — until I read about it on a yellow legal pad following his death in 2007.
In the fall of 1963, my father was a student at North Texas State University in Denton, about 30 miles northwest of Love Field. He had just turned 23, a late bloomer who had changed majors and opted for the five-year plan to finish college.
Like many people of his generation, Dad romanticized the era of Camelot, idealizing the young, handsome man with a wife and two cute children who had become the president of our nation. He was struck by the power of Kennedy’s speeches, most of them written by Ted Sorenson and delivered in the president’s distinct Massachusetts accent. For years, my father played those speeches back to me on the turntable in our living room while telling me about events like the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the promise to go to the moon by the end of the decade.
“Listen to how he said and phrased things. Listen to what he promised,” my dad said, still enraptured by Kennedy's words.
No question, it was a different time in American politics, when our members of Congress didn’t forget their primary responsibility was to govern our nation, and weren’t afraid to use strong-arm tactics to do it. In many states, the lines between conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans were so close you could not tell them apart.
Can you otherwise explain how Texas, in many ways the most conservative of states, managed to elect Democratic governors for 120 straight years?
If my parents did one thing that dramatically shaped my views, it was their steadfast refusal to influence me with their prejudices. I was allowed to disagree with them, as long as I did so with respect (and a dose of humor on the side). And disagree I did/do, at least politically speaking.
In that respect, I’m the black sheep of both sides of my family — Mom's and Dad's. I’m also a child of the 1970s, and realized some time ago that my political views were shaped as much by Saturday night TV binges on Channel 11 — “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “M*A*S*H,” etc. — as by anything they tried to teach me.
My paternal grandfather, however, was the real political contrarian in the family. An assistant postmaster in Longview, Texas, about 120 miles east of Dallas, he chaired the Gregg County Republican Party and campaigned heavily for Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. (Insert out and proud jokes here.) He especially could not stand Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president.
So it is by a stroke of luck, and my grandmother’s stubborn refusal to throw anything away, that we have a memento from Kennedy’s Texas trip that I will always cherish. It’s an invitation to the Texas Welcome Dinner, a fundraiser for the president’s upcoming 1964 re-election campaign, addressed to my grandfather. Today, framed in my bedroom, are the invitation, the letter, and the response card that no one bothered to fill out.
The dinner was to be held in Austin at 7:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.
Eight hours before the dinner was scheduled to start, my dad was waiting with several of his friends at the entrance to Love Field. They had heard on the radio that Kennedy would be landing there, and decided to see if they could catch a glimpse of the motorcade. Kennedy was scheduled to speak at a luncheon in Dallas before flying with his wife, Jackie, Johnson, and Gov. John Connally to Austin that afternoon.
Kennedy and his entourage got off the plane and went to the motorcade. There was the sighting and the wave. My dad and his buddies headed back to Denton, hearing the news of the assassination on the radio before they made it home.
That’s where the story ended, or so I thought. But going through my dad’s stuff after his death, my mom showed me something he had written on a yellow legal pad in his blocked, all-caps print.
The one-page note was his attempt to tell the whole story. As it turns out, my dad and his friends had been out late the night before, shooting at possums with BB guns. Dad noted they would wait to see the possums’ glowing eyes before taking aim and squeezing off a few rounds. For some reason, not explained fully by my father, one possum refused to play along, almost taunting Dad to shoot.
Dad said he couldn't pull the trigger.
Their joyride slowed down when much to their chagrin, my dad and his friends discovered they were out of beer just before sunrise.
Denton at the time was dry, meaning you had to go out of town or be a member of a private club to drink, and the closest place to buy beer was Dallas. Because they didn’t have class on Friday, they decided to make the run and heard that Kennedy would arrive just before noon.
So, as it turns out, my father was this close to history — all because of a beer run.
About the photos:
Top: Widescreen TVs showing a documentary about JFK's presidency at the Newseum, September 2013. (Daily photo for November 21, 2013). Middle: The invitation to the Texas Welcome Dinner to be held on the evening of November 22, 1963. Below: Some of my father's political memorabilia focusing on our nation's 35th president.