The Day Kennedy Was Shot

By | November 21, 2020 | 1 Comments

In 1963, November 22 was a Friday. I was in my first year as a fellow in medical oncology, which then was a brand-new subspecialty. I worked at a small branch of the Los Angeles County hospital system. It was called John Wesley County Hospital after the founder of Methodism. You see, it had been the Methodist Hospital, but the Methodists built a new hospital and sold the older, smaller building to the country.

Back then, no one objected to a public building having a name with a religious connotation. Back then, we did not confuse freedom of religion with freedom from religion. Back then, we had a church service every Sunday morning in the ward solarium. An African American Baptist preacher alternated with a Korean American Methodist in leading the prayers and hymns. What they lacked in musical ability they more than made up for in enthusiasm.

It was an unforgettable experience for me to squeeze my way between the gurneys and wheelchairs as I made my rounds to the tune of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” or similar hymns. Back then, we tried to care for the patients’ spiritual needs as well as their physical needs. Back then, we were not interested in doing what was “politically correct,” but in doing what was right. We didn’t always succeed, but at least we tried.

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 lead 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.

I returned to my small hospital and finished caring for my patients. When you don’t know what to do, do what you’re supposed to. I exchanged few words with the nurses, who were in as sad a mood as I was.

Two days later, I was getting dressed to make Sunday rounds. The radio was describing how the assassin was about to be transferred from Dallas Police Headquarters to the County Jail. I went into the bathroom for a moment, and when I came out the radio was emitting only noise. I thought the program had been interrupted, but then the newscaster resumed in an excited voice and announced that Oswald had been shot.

Jack Ruby, the man who shot him, did what millions of Americans wanted to do. But in doing it, he ignited a host of conspiracy theories that continue to this day. Oswald was taken to Parkland Hospital, but not to the same treatment room where Kennedy died – perhaps as a result of a wise decision by the head nurse. Oswald died later in surgery.

I went to the hospital and made rounds. I recall that one of my patients was a British lady. I also recall that her husband had been killed in World War II, and that the social service page in her chart revealed that her income consisted of a British War Widow’s Pension of £10 or about $24 a month. I asked her what she thought of us Americans, now that we couldn’t keep either our President or his assassin alive. I don’t recall her reply, except that it was characteristically polite and reserved.

Later that day I went for a walk in my low-rent neighborhood. I recall a supermarket with a huge sign saying, “Open 24 hours,” and a small sign saying, “Closed.” I recall a small shop with a handwritten sign reading, “Closed – go to church.” That said it all.

The next day, Monday, was the funeral. In those days, we could arrange a complex, massive state funeral in three days. Now we can’t set up a health-care website in three years. We watched the Kennedy family and the impressive group of foreign dignitaries, led by the 6’5” President de Gaulle of France.

I was in the U.S. Public Health Service, but because I was assigned to a civilian installation, I was not required to buy a uniform. One of my colleagues came up to me and said, “They killed your boss.” I relied, “I know – if I had a uniform I’d wear it today.” I realized at the time how feeble that sounded, but it was all I could think of to say.

The procession to Arlington National Cemetery was accompanied by muffled drums sounding sad, even ominous. As the procession moved along at the slow pace of the horse-drawn caisson, the band played Chopin’s “Funeral March”, the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father”), and a slow version of “Hail to the Chief.” That rousing tune played slowly was especially moving.

The brief burial service was conducted by Cardinal Cushing of Boston, who had married the Kennedys 10 years before. I recall the part of the service where the priest says something like, “Grant this mercy, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy servant John departed…” But Cardinal Cushing knew him too well for that. He said, “Grant this mercy, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy servant Jack departed…” For some reason, that familiarity loosened the knot of emotion that had held firm till then, and I turned away to wipe my eyes.

If you want a faint picture of what it was like to be on duty at Parkland Hospital that terrible Friday, see the film “Parkland.” If you want to debunk the myriad conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, read the digestible “Case Closed” by Gerald Posner, or the comprehensive “Reclaiming History” by Vincent Bugliosi. But if you want to find out what it was like for ordinary citizens the day President Kennedy was shot, ask anyone who lived through it.

On that fateful day, a young woman lost her husband, two small children lost their father, a family lost a son and a brother, a nation lost its elected leader, freedom lost an eloquent spokesman, and America lost its innocence. Perhaps nations, like individuals, inevitably lose their innocence. But like some other aspects of growing up, it is very painful.

If a President dies in office, like Roosevelt, it is a national tragedy. But if a President is murdered in office, like Kennedy, it is a national trauma, one from which those of us who were there will never quite recover.

Assassinating a President is a direct attack on freedom itself. The assassin is saying, “No, you ignorant, stupid voters don’t choose your leader, I do.” Those who spread frank hatred for our elected leader must accept the guilt for any violence that may ensue. Criticism, even harsh criticism, is one thing. A stream of vile invective is quite another. Who knows how many Lee Harvey Oswalds are listening?

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