It was an Indian summer noontime in central Texas, one of those fleeting November days when the wind stops screeching from the north across the flatlands before the chill settles in for good. A normal Friday at Texas A&M would have brought the predictable weekend exodus from our College Station campus to Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and other more habitable venues.
Nov. 22 wasn’t a normal Friday. Yes, the president of the United States was in Texas, but more significantly, the Thanksgiving Day football clash with our bitter rivals from the University of Texas was just six days away. This meant one of Aggieland’s most venerable traditions—the annual bonfire. Freshmen in the ROTC Corps of Cadets would be up at 5 o’clock the next morning to cut, clear, tote, and stack gigantic logs for the world’s biggest bonfire, lit on the eve of the Turkey Day classic. It was the great rite of passage for first-year cadets like me, known as Fish.
The Corps began lunch at 12:10, and students could eat until 1, but freshmen always chowed down as swiftly as possible. Less time eating meant fewer opportunities for hazing by upperclassmen, especially the sadistic sophomores. So on this particular Friday, seven of us left Duncan Dining Hall about 12:40.
As we reached our dorm, a junior in our outfit said that someone had taken a shot at President Kennedy. We rushed into a room and someone flipped on the radio. An announcer was reporting shots fired at the presidential motorcade at a triple underpass on the western fringe of downtown Dallas. No report of casualties.
Having grown up 16 miles away in Arlington, I didn’t need further elaboration. Dallas back then was the preferred big-date venue for high school kids. Arriving from western suburbs, you had to drive through the triple underpass.
A freshman named Faulkner who lived in the room wandered in, asked what had happened, and let out a shrill whoop. “They finally got the bastard,” he exclaimed. Three of us grabbed him simultaneously and flung him to the ground. The angriest was my roommate, Mike Russo, a tough-talking street kid from Brooklyn who six weeks afterward flunked out, was drafted into the Army, and was killed in Vietnam a year later. Russo was restrained before he could punch out our classmate. “Enough violence for one day,” somebody said. Faulkner still didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, but he left us to our stupefaction.
We clustered around the radio and waited. Time moved slowly. Eventually we heard that the president had been shot in the head but was still alive. Nobody said anything, but we were all thinking the same thing: How often does someone get shot in the head and survive? The radio announcer, a country-western disc jockey usually touting “The Boss Sound,” read each bulletin as it flashed across the teletype. He announced the arrival of another, then started reading. “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States…. ” The Boss Sound paused.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the president is dead.” My watch read 1:35.
We hung by the radio all afternoon to learn the lurid details: The shots had not come from the triple underpass after all, but from a sixth-floor corner window of the Texas School Book Depository, a decrepit old building at the corner of Houston and Elm with a gigantic Hertz car-rental billboard on the roof. I had always checked that Hertz clock to calculate whether I’d make my movie, dinner, or football game on time. This was like having a president murdered on your front porch.
Later, walking across campus—I’m not sure why, since we all knew classes would be canceled—I passed a sophomore from my outfit, Company A-1, nicknamed Animal A. He was the meanest man I’d ever known, but tears streamed down his cheeks, spilling onto the creases of his field jacket. I passed the A&M administration building as its flag was lowered to half-staff, and suddenly a car squealed to a halt in the middle of a street in front. An Army major jumped out and rendered a crisp salute to the sinking banner, then drove away.
The campus was like a tomb that weekend. The sense of shame, horror, and tragedy was overwhelming—and amplified because the assassination happened in our home state. Despite some half-hearted grumbling, the bonfire was canceled, but the Thanksgiving football game went on as scheduled. In Texas, life imitates football, then and now.
Kennedy wasn’t popular on campus, and the assassination didn’t shake everybody off their keels. On Monday morning, my English professor began his lecture with a sick question. He wanted to know what famous person had died on Friday, and he wasn’t asking about Kennedy; he was referring to Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.
Texas A&M is no longer all-male and all-military, but it’s still a conservative bastion that dislikes Barack Obama, gave Mitt Romney a comfortable margin in 2012, and will deliver for the GOP presidential candidate in 2016. Still, only the hard-core loathers reveled in the death of a president that Friday. For the most part the campus, like the rest of the nation, was seized with shock and disbelief.
Dallas didn’t kill JFK, but the local purveyors of intolerance who spat on Lyndon Johnson and accosted Adlai Stevenson were unindicted coconspirators. Sadly, some of their ilk endure, and they often seem to flourish in the nation’s capital. As a nation grieves for what might have been—at least for those of us old enough to remember the hope and innocence snuffed out along with a vibrant, youthful life—this 50th anniversary should at the very least remind us that the haters are still around. And, alas, they aren’t all jihadists.
This article appears in the November 23, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as One Friday Morning.