Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Torch is Passed and Nov. 1963


My first clear memory is of a funeral. Not of a family friend or relative, but the funeral of a president. My first memory is of watching the funeral of John F. Kennedy. I was three years old. I don’t even want to surmise how that affected my views on death, on politics, on world events.
I know it was really my experience, not a recollection of news clips, because of what I remember most. The horses. Especially, the horse with the boots on backwards. The news clips never show that part; it’s always little John-John saluting, his mother, Jackie, looking elegant in her grief, the flags fluttering. I remember all of that, but the clearest thing is that jet black horse with the empty saddle and boots backwards in the stirrups.
As I grew up, there were more funerals; Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Kent State. Anytime there was a force for good, a force for changing the world, it always ended in those flag-draped coffins on a black and white TV.
Nearly ten years after watching President Kennedy’s funeral, I discovered a book in the school library called The Torch is Passed which was full of photos from that event. Midway through the book was a picture of the horse with the boots, whose name was, appropriately enough, Black Jack. Evidently, the backward boots is a tradition from the American Civil War to honor a fallen hero.
The book itself is large format, the same size as art books, but is quite thin. The cover is a Moroccan red, the same shade as dried blood, ironically. It is full of news photographs, beginning with the landing of JFK and Jackie landing at Dallas airport an hour before the shooting and ending at the eternal flame over his grave in Arlington Cemetery, four days later. As well as photos of the mourning public and visiting dignitaries, there are pictures of the moments after the president is shot in the motorcade and Lee Harvey Oswald being killed by Jack Ruby. The photos aren’t captioned, but accompanying text gives a full report of the events and staunchly favor the “Oswald acted alone” viewpoint.
Because this event loomed so large in my upbringing, I’ve consumed numerous books, movies and documentaries on it, all to help me understand what was behind those fuzzy black and white images I saw as a toddler. Later, seeing the Zapruder film (footage from an amateur at the motorcade), I realized Oswald could not have been the only shooter and am firmly in the “someone on the grassy knoll” school of thought. If that makes me sound like a conspiracy kook, so be it.
After finding The Torch is Passed, (the title is from Kennedy’s inaugural address), I coveted the book. I never saw it in book stores, so it must’ve been a special release at the time, perhaps only available by mail? I understand people wanting it as a keepsake, though I doubt that anyone having company ever said “Here’s a new book we just got, would you like to revisit the time of a great national tragedy?” A few years ago, I found a copy at a library book sale for a dollar, though antique dealers list the book at thirty or forty times that.
Those long ago events would’ve been confusing to an adult, in fact, I don’t think we will ever know what really happened or why. But to a child, it must’ve been baffling. Now I realize how difficult it must’ve been for Kennedy’s family to deal with something as personal as grief in such a public way. Especially his widow, Jackie, who looks to be in shock as she tries to absorb everything that happened in such a short time and maintained such poise throughout, holding onto her children’s hands. It also strikes me how an entire nation can mourn for someone they never met. How unfortunate that it’s seldom a happy occasion that can unite people in the same way.
I’m thankful that a book such as The Torch is Passed exists, not least because it sharpens and expands those images I saw past my little shoes, that it was more than horsies amid all those flags and sad people. That the impact it had was not only on my awakening consciousness, but upon the world and history itself.

AP Productions 1963 100 pp.

President Kennedy was killed on November 22, 1963.

12 comments on “The Torch is Passed and Nov. 1963

  1. DOT
    November 22, 2010

    I too remember Black Jack and the boots reversed.

    The news of JFK’s assassination hit my boarding school during study time, i.e. homework for normal kids, and despite the supposed silence that was meant to be maintained in the room that hosted the 200 pupils, the story circulated the room within five minutes from someone illicitily listening to a radio. Being a Catholic college in the UK, there was a greater edge to our shock as JFK was hailed as a heroic figure for the faith, particularly by us boys then in our teens.

  2. Nikki
    November 22, 2010

    I’m not familiar with the assassination of JFK (before my time) but it’s funny how expressions like “second gunman on the grassy knoll” are familiar to me (although I confess to not knowing much about that theory). This is a moving review, that picture and the significance behind it is very very poignant. You’ve sparked an interest in me to go and look more at this major event.

  3. Walli
    November 22, 2010

    I remember it all as if it were yesterday also. I knew of the history of the boots and such. It was a horrible time and one that still leaves painful memories. As for another shooter, that too, shall remain a mysters.

    Walli

  4. Hilary
    November 22, 2010

    Thanks so much for this, Jackie – very moving. I’d forgotten all about the horse with the empty saddle and the boots reversed. I’m of the generation so many of whom can remember exactly where they were and how they reacted when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. I was 12, and I remember I couldn’t stay in the room with my parents, but had to go up to my room to cry. It astonishes me now to think of the depth of the impression that JFK made on a schoolgirl in the UK, at a time when we were NOT immersed in 24 hour news and information overload as we are these days. So he was an extraordinary world hero. It’s a sad anniversary.

  5. lisa
    November 22, 2010

    Lovely heartfelt review, Jackie. Thank you.

  6. PJ.
    November 22, 2010

    Very nicely-written, Jackie. It was, as they say, “a significant emotional event” for many, many people; so many hopes and dreams were pinned upon JFK that his early death left them quite intact and so we look back and mourn not what was, but instead what could have been.

  7. Karen Campbell
    November 22, 2010

    I also own this book. I was a freshman in college when JFK died. I was late getting to a language lab and had just heard on my boyfriend’s car radio that JFK was shot. When I went into the lab everyone had their earphones on, and they were just practicing their languages, as usual. I was stunned that no one was reacting to the news! About ten minutes later another professor entered the lab and told everyone about the shooting. At that time I realized that no one in the room, except me, had known anything about it. No cell phones, no blackberries; such a different time!

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  9. ed
    December 15, 2010

    well,i have one original. thanks.

  10. ed
    December 15, 2010

    I have an original of the torcch is passed,with the in memoriam invitation card may 29,1917,november22,1963.

  11. David
    December 10, 2011

    Wow, I just found this book (tablebook) at a St. Vincent Depaul in Northern Kentucky, where I reside. It only costs a buck and it has pictures I don’t remember seeing. But I also never remember seeing this book either. What a find. Even though i was only 5 years old at the time; it is MY generation. My Mother has always been enamored by the whole Kennedy thing, and is a lifetime Dem. as well…by the way, I find all sorts of great deals at St. V. and Goodwill….Merry Christmas to all…
    David
    Don’t hate, relate!

  12. Debra
    April 13, 2012

    My first memory as well, and at the same age, is of the very same thing, Jackie. Thanks for posting this. My parents have this book somewhere in their home and I think I’ll go dig it out today. Along with The Kennedy Years, those books define an era.

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This entry was posted on November 22, 2010 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: sociology and tagged , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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