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From JFK assassination, closure may never come

Like most of my peers clinging to the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I remember it as a very dark day.

Yet Nov. 22, 1963, didn't start out that way.

After all, it was Friday. The weekend was coming. And the Thanksgiving holiday was on the horizon. You could almost smell the turkey roasting in the oven. Big helpings of turkey, dressing and gravy would soon be followed by thick wedges of pumpkin pie.

Potential abounded for pigging out. Life was good.

As a gifted daydreamer, I was sitting in the Kerby Elementary School sixth-grade class, likely thinking about a planned outdoor excursion down along the Illinois River with fellow urchins. Nothing like an outdoor romp after a heavy meal to work up an appetite for leftover pie and turkey, the food of gods.

Those happy thoughts evaporated when our teacher announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. It was late morning West Coast time.

A hastily called assembly was held in the school gym. Principal Bob Hambly, a fellow appreciated by pedagogues and pupils alike, spoke a few words, as did a local minister.

The kids were mostly quiet, including the usual rabble-rousers. Even daydreamers paid attention that day.

The pall hanging in the air followed us home after school. I was worried our nation was about to fall apart. Nothing made sense anymore.

JFK had been a father figure at a time when I sorely needed one. In his wide smile, I saw hope for the future. He made me optimistic, a feeling I found in short supply in the early 1960s.

After all, my father died in 1961, leaving a jobless widow who couldn't drive with five young children. My twin and I were 9, the last of the lot. The other siblings included another pair of twins 14 months older than us and an older brother two years older than them.

The following year brought the Columbus Day storm of Oct. 12, 1962, which nearly blew the roof off our little house. We're talking about a storm that killed 46 people in the Pacific Northwest, destroyed more than 50,000 homes and left another 469,000 homes without power.

Then, of course, came the JFK assassination in 1963, an event that impacted us all, young and old, rich and poor.

Mother Nature returned with a vengeance in 1964, bringing the flood of the century, which brought four feet of Illinois River water flowing through our home.

Obviously, these were not the best of times for my family. We would have been only mildly surprised had a plague of locusts descended upon us the following year.

As a Kerby kid looking out at the world, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of bad news. I was equally underwhelmed by humankind's ability to deal with the endless tragedies. JFK had been a political breath of fresh air, someone I could believe in, and he was gone.

Like most people across the nation, we watched the events of JFK's assassination unfold on a flickering screen. Our maternal grandmother had just bequeathed our family with a small black-and-white TV set, the kind with rabbit ears. It picked up the lone station in Medford that aired coverage of the events in Dallas.

I remember cheering when it was announced that Lee Harvey Oswald, a recently hired employee at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, had been arrested for Kennedy's assassination as well as the murder of a city police officer.

We were watching live coverage Sunday morning when Oswald, while being transferred to the county jail, was shot at point-blank range by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner. Oswald died shortly afterwards.

Then came JFK's funeral and the somber photographs of Jackie, Caroline and John John, all in black and white. The sight of a riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups following the caisson carrying the casket is an indelible image in my memory.

Years later as an adult, I would visit Dealey Plaza in Dallas and saw the Texas School Book Depository, the perch from where Oswald had fired the shots. I have also paid tribute to JFK's grave site in Arlington National Cemetery.

My visits were not driven by macabre curiosity but an attempt to find closure to what happened half a century ago this coming Friday. I have yet to find it.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.