Aug 05, 2020

50 years ago today: A memoir

As far back as I can remember, I  wanted to be a journalist. Maybe it was that shiny new transistor radio that I slept with after Christmas of 1958.  It carried me far and away into new worlds of music, news and sports.  

The first voices I heard late at night were Wolfman Jack, blasting oldies over the mighty XERB in Hollywood, and Lon Simmons, calling the play-by-play for the newly transplanted San Francisco Giants, just up the road from my home in San Jose.

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Saltz, had just finished his lecture on the presidential election process. When we returned from recess, I noticed that he had been crying.   In a minute or two, the whole school was ushered out of the grounds.

Our parents were all lined up in their station wagons to pick us up.  It was much like the parents of students do today, but this was a very rare thing back in 1963. In the car, my mother was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she started sobbing uncontrollably. She pulled the car over and somehow put enough words together to tell me that President John F. Kennedy, the same JFK we were just praising in class, had been shot.

The car radio, which only had AM at that time, was a blur of news reports with no clear word on the president’s condition.

The salesman hadjust convinced my dad.  After all, it was the latest model available, a home entertainment system, with a 25-inch color television, and an AM/FM Multi-Plex stereo receiver, with attached turntable.  It would play our 45s, 78s and the new 33-rpm vinyl LPs.

Of course to close the deal, the salesman mentioned that the time my dad would spend with his family enjoying quality programming would be priceless.  Little did he know how right he would be.

We arrived home to a nice roaring fire, and a big pot of spaghetti.  Dad was waiting for us, while our new friend the television, was carrying many different news reports.

My younger brother and sister seemed oblivious to all the confusion, sharing a blanket on the sofa.  We barely had time to take off our coats, when we all stopped in our tracks.

Suddenly, we heard Walter Cronkite break into programming with a  voice that cracked with sorrow and tears;  President  JFK was declared dead at 1 p.m. CST.

The jobs done by the news crews and reporters on the ground were amazing for the time. They frantically gathered information and reported from the various locations that were involved with the tragedy with written and “live” feeds.

Lyndon B. Johnson was officially declared the 36th president of the U.S., while Jacqueline Kennedy stood by stoically in her blood-soaked pink dress.

My family never left the house that long four-day weekend.  We brought in blankets and sleeping bags and huddled by the fire, eating our meals, while our eyes remained glued to our new television.

My dad didn’t say much. As a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, I knew he was affected, but he was the true hero in our family, never showing weakness.

My mother took this extremely hard.  As a teenager in high school in 1945, she too was sent home from school. President Roosevelt had died in office, and she cried her eyes out then as well.

I still feel that the open outpouring of emotion from my mother was a driving force in my own life, striving for the truth and honesty that I have always held dearly.

I promised her that I would graduate from college and be a journalist someday. I never said when I would be done.

Sunday morning brought a clearer understanding of what had happened in Dallas.

We really liked CBS Channel 5, and the familiar and trustworthy voice of Cronkite.  I remember alerting the family when they were bringing Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, out of the jail cell to be transported somewhere.

It was that precise moment in time when we witnessed history, as Jack Ruby had taken justice into his own hands for the time being.  We had just witnessed a “live” murder on national television; on our brand new television, the same one that the salesman said would change our lives.

I felt something stir inside of me. It wasn’t anger, it was something else. I wanted to pick up the phone.  I wanted to call Cronkite and report what I had seen.  I wanted to go on the “air” and tell what happened.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I would say, “we have just witnessed the murder of the alleged assassin of JFK, and we will now go ‘live’ to…”

The networks refused to air the NFL games on TV that Sunday, while the news reports never stopped.

When I walked outside for the first time that weekend, I noticed you could have heard a pin drop. The neighborhood was quiet as a mouse, even the new freeway down the street was empty.  America was home just like we were.

The other big event on TV that day showed the endless line of people lined up to pay their respects to the president’s body which lay in state in Washington, D.C.  Every network had its coverage from a different camera angle. I remember my mom and I watching the young U.S. Marine who stood over the proceedings for an eternity, prepared to defend the lifeless body of the once handsome and charismatic JFK.

Monday, we were recovering nicely, while the three networks were broadcasting nothing but the preparations for the funeral that day.

As we watched the procession take place, I promised myself that I would cry no more, my eyes were still burning and sore.

The “riderless horse” came down the street, followed by the buggy and carriage carrying the casket. When the very young JFK Jr. stood and saluted his father’s passing body, that was it, we all cried for the rest of the day.

We stayed home all week in preparation for our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner, even though it was less than stellar. It was truly one of the last large family gatherings we shared, as our family went in different directions. My dad passed away in 2003, and my mom is still alive and well in the Bay Area.

My dream of becoming a journalist and graduating from college will come to fruition this coming spring.  My mom will be the one crying in the front row.

About the author

Sammy LoProto is a majoring journalism and currently working on a book about the music that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement. 




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