There are certain moments in your life that are forever seared on your psyche. Like September 11th. Even now, you can see these recollections clearly, recalling the emotions you were feeling at the time.
For my generation, such a memory will always be JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963, played over and over again in a loop that starts out the same, but just once, you wish the ending could turn out differently.
I was in grade school that day, having spent the three years prior in a family that revered all things Kennedy. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, albeit Latino, not Irish, we felt as if the Kennedy’s were our kindred spirits. Caroline was about my age and I loved watching her and John-John play in the Oval Office, hiding under their father’s desk, smiling coyly for the camera. And, my family could be entertained for hours, gathered around the Hi-Fi, listening to Vaughn Meader’s The First Family, a best-selling comedy album that parodied the Kennedy Family, yet was retired by most and taken off the market after the assassination.
I recently had the opportunity to attend an author event for the newly-released memoir, Mrs. Kennedy and Me. The book, written by Clint Hill, one of two Secret Service agents assigned to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s detail, as well as award-winning journalist, Lisa McCubbin, chronicles the four years Mr. Hill spent with Mrs. Kennedy, beginning just before President Kennedy’s inauguration.
Looking around at the 100 or so people in attendance, I could tell I wasn’t the only one in the room who remembered where they were when JFK was assassinated. As Mr. Hill spoke, we hung on every word. We were children again, reliving the memories of our youth, gathered around someone even closer to the events than the proximity we claimed as eyewitnesses to the events that unfolded on TV.
Here’s some of what I learned during his hour-long, captivating talk:
Prior to protecting Mrs. Kennedy, Mr. Hill was assigned to President Eisenhower. He expected that his next assignment would be protecting President Kennedy, and was profoundly disappointed when he learned he’d be assigned to the First Lady.
He spent the holidays leading up to the inauguration of 1961, in Palm Beach, Florida with the Kennedy family and planned to return to Washington, in time for the inauguration. However, the president elect asked Mr. Hill to stay behind with Caroline, who was just three at the time, too young to attend her father’s inauguration. Mr. Hill had no choice but to watch it on TV, and though he tried to explain to Caroline what was going on, she wasn’t interested, preferring instead to play with her paper dolls.
During an unofficial trip to Greece with the First Lady, JFK made it clear that under no circumstances was Mrs. Kennedy to cross paths with Aristotle Onassis. Apparently, the president didn’t want any photographs of the two of them to end up in the press, as Onassis was having some trouble with the US government at the time.
During a vacation, in early 1963, Mr. Hill was working round the clock. When he finally got a chance to return to his hotel room for much-needed sleep, Mrs. Kennedy called him and asked him to return because her sister’s husband, Prince Radziwill, wanted to go on a 50-mile hike. Mr. Hill had to delay his nap and go along, despite not having the appropriate clothing for hiking in, and only his dress shoes to wear.
In the summer of 1963, Mrs. Kennedy gave birth five weeks early to a boy, Patrick. He had to be put in an incubator, and died soon after. In order to help her recover from the loss, that October, Mrs. Kennedy joined her sister, Lee and some close friends for a stay in Greece aboard a private yacht belonging to, you guessed it, Onassis. This time, they did meet.
Mrs. Kennedy returned from the trip ready to help her husband with his re-election campaign. On the morning of the assassination, they breakfasted in Ft. Worth. Then, got ready for the motorcade in Dallas. You know what happened there.
Through the course of the evening, Mr. Hill shared his stories and anecdotes with candor and love for Mrs. Kennedy. As he got closer to talking about THE date, you could feel the pulses in the room quicken. Nobody said a word. We listened intently, barely blinking, and soon I was overcome with a sense of dread and overwhelming sorrow.
Mr. Hill described in great detail the events as he recalled them. How he was the only secret service agent whose vantage point allowed him to see the president slump over after the first shot. How he jumped out of the car he was in and climbed onto the back of the limo the Kennedy’s were riding in. How he could immediately see the gravity of the injury and how his only thought was to use his body to shield the Kennedy’s from further harm. How Mrs. Kennedy had blood on her gloves and suit. How the shots rang out, one after another. He didn’t even notice that the Texas governor had also been hit.
That, when they arranged for a coffin to transport the president back to Washington, no one anticipated it would be too wide to fit through the door of Air Force One. So the handles had to be removed. How, he had little time to sleep during the ensuing days, and how he still agonizes over the guilt of not being able to do more.
And how he never returned to Dallas until 1991 when he entered the Texas School Book Depository building for the first time and was able to see how easy it was for a lone gunman to shoot to kill.
And when he finished speaking, a woman in the audience, with tears welling in her eyes, much like the rest of us, stood up and asked,
“Mr. Hill, did you realize that the whole country shut down for those four days?”
He paused for a moment, trying to compose himself. Then said, “No, I didn’t know.”
In that moment, not a sound was heard. Just one collective memory and one shared sorrow. As if we were all in it together. And, maybe, we were.