I think I can remember watching the Kennedy assassination drama on TV 50 years ago this weekend. I was three. While I’m sure my parents had the TV on all weekend like everybody else in America, I can’t be entirely sure that the image of a coffin on a bier in a funeral procession isn’t from a later time, from watching the now-iconic footage we’re all watching again this weekend.
(Whether I was watching or not, I grew up thinking about the events of November 22, 1963. Within weeks, the Associated Press published The Torch Is Passed, a narrative of the assassination weekend along with all the famous photos. Mom and Dad bought a copy, and I read it over and over as a kid. As I got older, I read a lot of the books postulating various assassination conspiracies, but I no longer have patience for them. That some of the more byzantine conspiracies could survive 50 years without unraveling strains credulity: Oswald did it, but we’ll never know precisely why, and I’m OK with that.)
I am looking at the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Morning Final (newsstand price: seven cents), which landed on doorsteps around Madison at breakfast time on November 22, 1963. The weather forecast on the front page is for mild weather, occasional rain, and possible thundershowers, with a high around 60. The Wisconsin legislature adjourned last night, although the governor was rumored to be considering a special session to address a controversial highway bill. A state representative was embroiled in scandal over a shady stock transaction. U2 pilot Joe Hyde of LaGrange, Georgia, was missing after wreckage of his plane was found in the Gulf of Mexico, presumably having crashed on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba. At the bottom of the front page, a story about the president’s trip to Texas mentions the catcalls he received at some stops, and his wife’s popularity.
Inside the paper, readers learn that Dave Fronek will start at quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers in their season-ending game against Minnesota tomorrow, and injured quarterback Bart Starr could play for the Packers on Sunday against San Francisco. The high school basketball season is set to begin tonight. There are a couple of display ads urging readers to shop early for Christmas. The back pages of the paper are crowded with ads for movies (a quadruple feature at the Badger Drive In: Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild, Unwed Mothers, and The Wayward Girl) and restaurants (lobster for $2 at Namio’s and the Tiki but just $1.75 at Nate’s Place). Those staying in tonight can look forward to episodes of Bob Hope Theater, Burke’s Law and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on TV. At 7:00, Madison radio station WISM-FM (at 98.1) will present The Stereo Demonstration Hour.
None of those things happened, with one exception: controversially, the NFL played its games as scheduled on Sunday; the Packers won 28-10 in front of 45,000 fans in Milwaukee. The Badgers were en route to Minnesota when news of the assassination broke; the game would be postponed to the next Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. Basketball games were canceled; stores, theaters, and restaurants closed; TV stations carried assassination coverage, and radio stations either reported the news or played somber music.
At breakfast, Madison had been expecting another ordinary autumn weekend. By shortly after lunchtime, the world was transformed. I quote again the single best thing ever written about the assassination, from essayist Lance Morrow, written for Time magazine on the 20th anniversary: “The real 1960s began on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 . . . . It came to seem that Kennedy’s murder opened some malign trap door in American culture, and the wild bats flapped out.”
(If you’re interested in the music on the radio 50 years ago today, click here.)