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.
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.