The Day Kennedy Was Shot

By | November 22, 2021 | 0 Comments

I finished my patient rounds that fateful Friday and got into my Chevy Bel Air for the trip to the main Los Angeles County General Hospital. I planned to attend Hematology Conference at 11 o’clock. On the drive I listened to the all-news station – talk radio was still in the future. As I approached the County Hospital at about 10:55, the commercial was so loud and irritating that I turned off the radio. That annoying commercial caused me to miss the first news flash.

I found a parking place and walked down the main hallway, heading for the back entrance that led to the clinic building, where the conference would be held. On the way I passed the employees’ cafeteria. Unexpectedly, I saw that it was packed with people standing silently. My first thought was that someone had collapsed from the terrible hospital food.

But as I pushed my way into the room, I realized that the silent crowd was listening to the PA system. A newscast was piped in from Dallas, where President and Mrs. Kennedy were on a political visit. I was shocked to learn that the president had been shot and rushed to Parkland Hospital.

I had been brought up as a liberal Democrat and had heard the bitter criticism of Kennedy from the far Right. I vividly recall that as soon as I heard Kennedy had been shot, I clenched my fists in anger and muttered to myself about the radical Right.

However, I later learned that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had defected to the Soviet Union and was a staunch supporter of leftist causes including Castro’s Cuba. Unlike some others, including so-called progressives, I was able to shift my anger at the far Right to where it belonged – a far Left loner.

I would have stayed with the crowd, riveted to the news coming over the speaker, but I had to deliver a bottle of a new cancer drug to a physician at the conference. So I walked to the Clinic Building and handed him the bottle. With the news coming over the speakers, I assumed that the conference would be cancelled. But the chief was a compulsive fellow, and the conference began on schedule.

Unable to bear this rigidity, I left and went to a nearby waiting room to listen to the news over the PA system. It was lunch time, and the hard wooden benches were empty except for an elderly Black man. He was clad in a neat but threadbare suit and – like many men in those days – wore a hat. He was bent over as if weighed down by the terrible news, as well as by his years and his illness.

We sat there on separate benches, listening. Men tend to be like that, wanting to be alone in their pain. The news got worse. There was a rumor that the President was gravely wounded. There was a rumor that Texas Governor John Connally, who was in the same car, had also been shot. There was a rumor that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was seen entering the hospital holding his chest. He had had a serious heart attack, and the fear was that we would lose both the President and Vice President.

Then there was a rumor that a priest was seen running into the emergency entrance. A priest running to give Last Rites is not a good sign. At this point I began to lose hope. And then it came – the formal announcement that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead. The radio began to play the National Anthem. I was so distraught that I forgot what to do.

But the elderly African American man didn’t forget. Perhaps he was a veteran. He placed his hands on his knees, levered himself to a standing position – in fact, a rather erect one – and removed his hat. Reminded of my duty, I too stood up. As the National Anthem concluded, I thought of going over and shaking his hand, but he turned and walked slowly away, replacing his hat and resuming his bent posture. Like many others that day, we preferred to grieve alone.

Sometimes, when I hear about athletes who refuse to stand for the National Anthem, I think about that elderly man. Surely he had been less fortunate in his life than those ingrates, but he knew what to do when the music began.

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