One Autumn Day

It was an interesting year in my life. Already I had set in motion a chain of events that would radically alter my course. It so happened at this time I was on active duty in the Navy Reserve, living on campus at the University of Texas at Austin, drawing full pay plus a living allowance and wearing my uniform. I was supposed to be recruiting candidates from my school mates for the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate program. Things were getting sticky in the Far East, and the Navy saw the need for pilots to man the new F-4 Phantom jets.

Morning was fluid mechanics class. I do not recall what was covered that day, but I do recall I was on my way to making a C in fluid mechanics. I really need to go back and plumb the depths of Navier Stokes. Class let out, it was a short hike back to the Campus Guild for lunch.

It was autumn, it was crisp and with a thin layer of cirrus high overhead. It was Friday. Tomorrow I had scheduled a meeting with the Navy lieutenant commander who was coming to campus to set up a recruiting session that weekend. And the boss was coming to town later that day. He was the President of the United States, and I wondered if I should take time off from afternoon classes to catch a glimpse.

I never made it. Cutting across a parking lot north of 24th street I passed two slackers exchanging chatter. “Did you hear Kennedy was shot.” I waited for the punch line. It never came.

John Kennedy was an enormously popular president, in both senses. He had a great base of fans, and he had an enormous crowd of bitter enemies. But he was high profile.

Comedians Vaughn Meader and Naomi Brossart were making a good living spoofing The First Family. The Boston accents, the power of the great office, and the touch of American royalty, all were mined for a wealth of chuckles.

From Wikipedia

But this last line did not get a response. I was stunned and puzzled. I continued the remaining eight blocks to the Campus Guild without speaking to anybody. Only my thoughts kept me company. I arrived. The other Guilders were there, gathering for lunch. It was all true.

Lunch was an afterthought. I do not recall whether I ate. Shortly came the voice of Walter Cronkite. President Kennedy was dead. It was 22 November 1963.

1964 was going to be an election year. Speculation had been heavy over the new president’s re-election potential. His few months in office had so far been mixed. First there had been the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy had inherited the plan from the previous administration and had followed through with it after just a few week in office. It had been a screw-up from the get-go. That was 1961.

The following year there had been the triumph of backing the Soviets down over their missiles in Cuba. His stock was up. The civil rights legislation, including voting rights and prohibition of discrimination in public accommodation, were in the works. The Peace Corps was already off to a good start, and we were in a race to the moon against the Soviets.

My idiotic remark to those assembled for lunch was, “This will completely change the election.” Somebody more appropriately corrected me, “This will completely change the country.” It was so true.

I met with the Navy lieutenant commander. We did not set up the recruiting booth. He packed up the displays and prepared to return to Naval Air Station Dallas. Saturday was a washout. Nobody was doing anything but watching the news.

Sunday morning I slept late. When I wandered into the Campus Guild dining area the first person I met was Henry Chang. “Oswald has been shot.” Henry was a foreign student, and American politics were becoming frightening to him. His look of shock and dismay lingers in my memory to this day.

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