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

To mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, VL is reposting this piece which originally ran on this date in 2010

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.

8 comments on “The Torch Is Passed and Nov. 1963

  1. Sue Williams
    November 22, 2013

    I was 8 years old, watching the same thing as you but 5 years at that time of our lives was a very long time. What I remember most is the cadence of the drums. I alway remember Black Jack and John John saluting. Hard to believe that he had grown up and has already died. Only Caroline is left. I remember when he was elected, we celebrated. I was 5 then. To me they were our royalty, the assassination blew me away at 8 years old. Again, I wonder what it did to my psyche at such a formative time in my life. Did it contribute to my rebellion against authority? They killed our president. Never trust anyone, we don’t really know who killed him. They killed our president, and nothing has ever been the same, even though we might think it has. Reliving this, 50 years later, wondering how different things might be. And that black horse with the boots on backwards.

  2. fauquet
    November 22, 2013

    This is an event that no one can forget ; And here you write the representation memorized by a little three year old girl.

  3. Clarissa Aykroyd
    November 22, 2013

    Thanks for this moving account. JFK died more than 15 years before I was born but I think today is probably something of a heavy day for many who remember the assassination and funeral. Everyone old enough to remember and understand knows where they were when they heard he’d been shot.

    I just found your description of memory and the impact of such events on an awakening psyche to be very interesting. I think such events and their memory can have a major impact, sometimes enormous, and that sometimes we never realise their full effect or it takes decades.

  4. Elizabeth Simon
    November 22, 2013

    Thanks for this post; brought back memories of my 9-year-old self trying to comprehend the event. Regarding the grassy knoll and “single bullet theory,” there was a very interesting PBS program recently (NOVA, Cold Case, JFK; that applied modern forensics to the case. The results surprised me.

  5. Moira
    November 23, 2013

    I was 7 when President Kennedy was killed, but I have absolutely no memory of it whatsoever – and I suspect the same is true of a lot of British children. At that time – long before the all-invading reach of social media – I don’t think events in the US impinged much on people in the UK. I asked my (now 92 year old) mother if she remembered what she was doing when she heard that JFK had died, and interestingly, she said she had no memory of the event at all.

    What I DO remember, quite clearly. broadcast the day AFTER he died, was the first ever episode of Dr Who …

    Quite what that says about me, I’m not sure.

  6. Hilary
    November 23, 2013

    This is such a moving piece, Jackie. I’m someone who DOES have a very strong recollection of where I was, how I heard and what effect it had on me, and every year the memory comes back to me. I was 12, and I have no idea, really, why this event had such an impact on me. I think the Kennedys had somehow captured my imagination, but I couldn’t now tell you how and why. But I know my parents told me when I came home from a girl guide meeting and maybe it’s because I remember being in my uniform that the memory has stuck so fast. It’s strange how these things work.

  7. sshaver
    November 26, 2013

    What was most impressive about the Kennedy brothers (as opposed to the Bush brothers) is that they could learn. They started out way behind the curve on civil rights; but if you listen to JFK’s speech in the middle of the University of Alabama mess, it sounds absolutely like he “gets it.”

  8. puffpop
    November 22, 2020

    Beautifully written. I will never forget that day nor the week after how the world stood still…We lost any innocence that we had.

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  • (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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