How Texas A&M, Conservative Bastion, Grappled With JFK’s Death

I was a freshman and an ROTC cadet when the president was assassinated one Friday morning. Some people were glad, but most were just shocked.

Wounded: The author in college.
National Journal
Tom DeFrank
Nov. 22, 2013, 8 a.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×