(Host) Like many Americans, commentator Howard Coffin remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard that the president had been shot – 41 years ago on Monday.
(Coffin) Just before Thanksgiving, 1963, I was working in a warehouse on Burlington’s St. Paul Street, a college dropout waiting for his student deferment to expire. One chilly afternoon fellow worker Dave Doubleday rushed in with the news that President Kennedy had been shot. At first I didn’t believe him. Soon, all Burlington became sad.
The following spring, fresh out of basic training at Fort Dix, I was on my way to Fort Hood Texas under orders to report to the Second Armored Division. I had a one night layover in Dallas, so I decided to look at the assassination site.
Finding Dealey Plaza wasn’t easy. Nobody in Dallas wanted to talk about the previous November 22. But I soon stood on the famous Grassy Knoll looking down at the roadway where Kennedy had been hit, and up at the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, from which the Warren Commission determined that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the fatal shots.
When I reached the School Book Depository, I found a side door open and started up some stairs. Maybe because I was in uniform, nobody questioned what I was doing there. Soon, I was standing on the sixth floor, by a window that either was, or was close to, THE window. I knelt at the open window facing Dealey Plaza, looking down the sights of an imaginary army rifle.
In basis training I had earned an expert rifleman’s badge. Yet I was immediately stuck by the distance of the shot, by the difficulty of firing three shots so fast and of hitting a small, moving target, though the motorcade would have been moving almost directly away. Then someone in a deep voice said, “What you doin’, soldier?”
“Just curious,” I said, turning to confront a man in work clothes.
“Ain’t supposed to be here,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said, and I left.
I spent an hour at Dealey Plaza, particularly around the Grassy Knoll, which slopes up from the roadway where the President was hit. I made my way behind the high fence that ran along atop the knoll. That was the place to have done it, I thought, almost a point-blank shot, with an easy escape, not running down six flights of stairs onto crowded streets.
The death of John F. Kennedy has stayed with me. I thought the young president was capable of making a better America, a better world even. Why is it, I’ve wondered, that so many of our best, who seemed to care about “the people,” have been gunned down. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, JFK, all fallen from assassins’ bullets. I remember a song back then about RFK – “I thought I saw him walking over the hill, with Abraham, Martin and John.”
Another November 22 has come around and I think of them, 41 years later here under gray Vermont skies with the bright leaves gone.
I’m Howard Coffin of Montpelier.
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the Civil War.