As the world acknowledges the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, commentator Rawlins Gilliland shares his memory of a thrilling day that turned tragic.
The first thing I remember thinking, hearing on my car radio that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital, was: "I’ll be glad when this is thirty years ago." Now it’s almost fifty years since I was the eager college freshman celebrating presidential star power in his hometown Dallas. When history took a brutal turn.
Having studied the motorcade route published in the newspaper, I waited at Loma Alto on Lemmon Avenue. And there, in the sunny crisp mid-morning, finally they came. Jacqueline Kennedy’s lustrous dark auburn hair gently fluttered beneath her pink signature hat. I could see the president’s head, which looked enormous, over her shoulder as her eyes met mine. I was suddenly a smitten boy captivated by a young woman almost twice my age.
I quickly raced through back roads to Main Street, where the Kennedy Memorial now stands, to be on the President’s side when the Lincoln convertible approached. Mere feet away, I nodded my head, my right hand to my forehead in feigned salute, while President Kennedy in-turn dipped his broadly smiling face to acknowledge my gesture. Star struck, I watched the car turn right on Houston. Toward the Texas Schoolbook Depository.
Returning to my car crossing Elm Street, there was sudden alarmed commotion two blocks away and I fled, driving in aimless disbelief, crying for the first time in my life about something unrelated to me. I went to bed that night a very different man than when I had earlier awakened. My adult life began on November 22, 1963.
To that fifteen year-old high school sophomore, the 1960 election of a young handsome president with a gorgeous wife and charming children felt transformative; and so too, this President’s death on our childhood memory streets. My lonely heartache compounded hearing the town I call home unfairly branded as ‘the city of hate’ by the northeast press when myriad Dallasites mourned invisibly as collateral damage. I lost interest in school and instantly hated guns.
I also realized I was forever part of history largely because I showed up. Incredibly, not long thereafter, I witnessed a murder in North Dallas and, as the prosecution’s only evidence, came to know the key assassination investigative Dallas players; District Attorney Henry Wade, homicide Captain Will Fritz, Police chief Jesse Curry. My life felt relevant for the most unlikely reasons.
Five decades later, I had a brief encounter with someone who thought it clever to be glib regarding that day’s events. I bristled before thinking: in 1963, 50 years ago would have been 1913... and I would have likely mocked someone thin-skinned over anything that ancient. I curbed my instinct to be offended.
Instead I told the young man lampooning the inevitable half-century retrospective onslaught; “Yes,” I said, "historic context evolves and no one’s memories can remain raw. But," I advised him, "it wasn't funny." Adding, “As they used to say, I guess you had to be there...”
Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.