November 22nd, 1963…When History Careened Down Its Alternative Path


If you love crime novels set along the coast of Southern California, you’ll love South on Pacific Coast Highway. Think Chandler and Hammett and the great noir films from the thirties and forties. Sultry dames and unsolved murders, bad cops and even badder criminals. A crisp but measured pace, with the desert wind for a backdrop…
Or perhaps you’d like to read about Americans incarcerated in Mexican prisons during the sixties. My fact based, crime fiction novel, The Trip Into Milky Way, captures unforgettably those wild years, from the early days, when we were just kids growing up and were still young and foolish enough to believe there was magic in this world and the great counterculture adventure waited ahead of us…

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The call came in over the intercom at some point shortly after 11:00 AM, on a Friday. The exact minute, I am no longer certain, only that it was not quite 11:30. We had been out to morning recess. Lunch was just ahead. I was a freshman in 7th grade at the time, and, ironically enough, in my history class as history was being made.

I remember our teacher being called out into the hallway briefly and coming back in with an anguished look on her face. She said the principal would be making an announcement over the intercom in a couple of minutes. When I saw her fighting back tears, I knew something was terribly wrong. Exactly what, I could not have imagined.

Picture someone announcing the death of your parents over a loudspeaker. Today, they would have brought in grief counselors. The entire thing was so unreal, from the message itself to the way it had been delivered. If you were not alive and there that day, you must realize how my generation had spent our early school years practicing what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The Soviet Union was evil and omnipresent and once a week we pretended to hide from their bombs under our maple desks. At hearing that our President had been assassinated, the Russians inevitably came to mind. They had to be behind this despicable deed. It was all part of a grand conspiracy. A nuclear attack and invasion was imminent. I do not say this facetiously. That was a very real fear of ours at the time.

More than anything, the message over the intercom that day was for each student to hurry home to safety. Who knew what would happen next? I cannot recall exactly what I did over the next few hours, only that it was not until sometime later in the afternoon when I finally arrived home. My father, an Irishman named John Francis was seated at the kitchen table with a bottle of Irish whiskey, weeping over a fellow Irishman.

I had never seen my father weep before, and, other than for bouts of maudlin drunkenness over the ensuing years, never saw him weep again. It seems to capture the essence of our nation’s journey that this man of the trades and labor unions, a staunch Democrat, would hole himself up in his bunker in later years, listening to Rush Limbaugh. From inspiration to cynicism, that was our journey.

You cannot speak of that moment without mentioning how much more surreal things became that following Sunday as we watched both Lee Harvey Oswald being shot in a Dallas police station and President Kennedy being carried to his final resting place through the streets of Washington DC. Shock was added to grief. Then soon it was Thanksgiving Day.

The debate goes on about President Kennedy’s place in history, and a case can be made that he accomplished little and was deeply flawed as a man. To those who weren’t there to experience the moment, perhaps it would be a bit like showing you an image of the Beatles without allowing you to hear their music. Calling the Kennedy presidency Camelot almost seems trite, but it was magic of some sort, to those of us who were willing to believe in it. You knew that the king was truly a king, not some interloper.

A man said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…” and we did that. He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and young people signed up in droves to serve in the Peace Corp and participate in the noble cause of public service. As much as anything, he made us laugh. Just hours before his death, President Kennedy, in commenting to a gathering of businessmen in Ft. Worth about all the attention paid to Mrs. Kennedy, joked that “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I are wearing.”

His mark of inspiration was so powerful, it somehow carried my generation forward through our disbelief, grief and growing disillusionment, until they shot his brother dead too, some five years later. By the time they had beat our heads in on the streets of Chicago that same year, outside of the Democratic Convention, the severing of a generation from its own dreams was mostly complete.

I am heartened to see my generation returning to its dreams in later years. I am heartened to see a younger generation being called to the hopes and dreams of their own halcyon days. I am not here to prove this or that about President Kennedy’s place in history. But I can tell you that he inspired me and millions more like me, and what more can a leader possibly be asked to do. I still look back with utter disbelief at what happened that day. I suppose the only true way to honor the man’s legacy is to allow my heart to dream great dreams again..