Friday, November 22, 2013

My November 22, 1963

I woke up feeling good that Friday morning. Someone using my face had been on an eight-day swing of Minneapolis, Detroit and now Chicago, like a politician, selling a version of himself in hotel dining rooms, on morning TV and late-night radio, in offices and auditoriums, not for votes but pages of magazine advertising by making himself more affable to strangers than the equally fictitious other guys.

By nightfall I would be heading home to my real self, family, friends, life and work. To celebrate I treated myself to a barber-shop shave, savoring that prospect of release after a luncheon speech to 300 ad people in the ballroom of the Ambassador East.

Shortly after noon, food was being served when a waiter whispered into my ear, “Kennedy’s been shot.”

I followed him into the kitchen where cooks, waiters and chambermaids, many with tears in their eyes, were staring at a small black-and-white TV set, frozen in attitudes of holding cleavers, platters and mops as if the world had suddenly stopped.

President Kennedy was on his way to Parkland Hospital, badly wounded.

In the ballroom, I went up to the stage, took the microphone and said, “I’m very sorry to have to tell you that the President’s been shot in Dallas. It looks serious. I’m sure you’ll want to go where you can follow what’s happening.”

When I returned to my table, the waiter said, “I kept your lunch warm.” When I shook my head, he vanished and returned a minute later with a large goblet of brandy.

A silver-haired man in an expensive suit came up and asked, “Does this mean you’re not going to give your speech?”  I nodded and went upstairs where I could be alone to watch Walter Cronkite, in a breaking voice, say “The President is dead.

The assassination was a shock not only to my nervous system but the nation’s. The powerful, rich and famous, embodiments of what we dream for ourselves, are supposed to be safe. We are not prepared to see their skulls exploding before our eyes.

In a railroad dining car that evening, I was still in a daze, watching people eating, drinking and laughing as if nothing had happened, as if the world hadn’t changed.

Back in my Pullman bed, stretched out for a night of sleepless sleep, I felt as if I were laid out in a tomb.

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