The principal's clipped voice crackled over the loudspeaker as we sat in Mrs. Dixon's third-grade reading class that tragically memorable day in 1963. "President Kennedy has been shot!" she brusquely announced. "School is dismissed."
The startling news utterly quashed what would have been the heady thrill of an out-of-the-blue early dismissal. Even as an 8-year-old child, I grasped the significance of this event.
Trudging homeward with my head bowed low, pelted by November raindrops, I had a vague, uneasy feeling that something -- I didn't know what -- had irrevocably changed. As I walked along the street, a gauzy gray sky enveloped me, casting a dreary pall upon the neighborhood, a fittingly somber backdrop to the day's sad tidings.
When I reached home, I found myself locked out -- Mom had gone grocery shopping as she did every Friday -- so I sat on the back porch to wait. While watching the streaming rainfall, I drooped under the weight of the president's death, brooding and succumbing to dismal thoughts. I wondered who had shot the president and wished Mom would hurry home before the gunman shot me, too!
Fifty years later, I'm still wondering. And I'm still locked out -- we're all locked out -- from knowing definitively who the shooter was. Imperceptible forces, it seems, hide the truth about the Kennedy assassination and prevent us from uncovering it. That hasn't stopped us from trying.
A few years back, I dedicated myself to solving this mother of whodunits, believing that, if I read enough books and watched enough documentaries and did enough of my own research, eventually I would expose the true assassin(s).
I've devoured every book about JFK's murder in the "True Crime" section of the local library. I've spent hours viewing videos on YouTube and scrutinizing websites for clues. There is no scarcity of data.
There was medical evidence. Like former TV coroner Quincy, M.E., I pored over autopsy results, scanned autopsy photos, dissected diagrams of the president's entry wounds, examined his exit wounds, studied the size of his throat wound, probed the depth of his fatal head shot wound. I delved into the blood matter, the brain matter, the tissue matter, questioning how it all mattered.
Technical terms like "Y incisions," "occipital parietal" and "tracheotomy" haunted me. There was ballistics evidence. Yawing bullets. Wobbling bullets. Tumbling bullets. The Magic Bullet. Lands, grooves, beveling, chipping and flaking of bullets. Trajectories of bullets. Weighted fragments of bullets. Though I didn't bite any bullets, after this painful, exhaustive, headache-inducing analysis, I was ready to take a bullet.
There were eyewitness accounts from Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Snapshots taken by spectators at the scene. The Zapruder film. The Warren Report. Dramatic re-enactments of the crime. Acoustics caught on tape by police radios. Computer models to simulate the motorcade.
Where did the shots originate? From the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository? From the Dal-Tex Building next door? From the highway overpass above Elm Street? Or from the stockade fence behind the sinister grassy knoll?
What about the suspicious cast of characters seen in the film footage and published photos -- the Umbrella Man, the Black Dog Man and the Babushka Lady? And the three mysterious tramps arrested in the railroad yard -- what part did they play?
Conspiracy theories abound, but with each revelation, I was newly confounded.
Was it the Mafia? The FBI? The CIA? Was it Texas oil billionaires? Anti-Castro Cubans? Pro-Castro Cubans? Fidel Castro himself? The Russians?
Who was the mastermind? Richard Nixon? Lyndon Johnson? J. Edgar Hoover? Or was it really Lee Harvey Oswald?
Family and friends suffered "assassination fatigue." I talked off their ears and bored them to tears with my endless conversation and unending vacillation. ("I'm sure it was a conspiracy! ... No, a lone gunman! ... Oswald was a patsy! ... No, Oswald was only the shooter! ... Yes, definitely a conspiracy!") Back and forth I wavered, a pendulum on pep pills.
Now I'm fatigued, too. Countless books, articles, discussions, programs and cyber-searches later -- even after traveling to Dallas myself to investigate the crime scene -- I have failed to crack the case. The truth eludes me.
Is it that inscrutable? Would I recognize the truth even if it peered into my eyes? Is our mistrust of the authorities so deep that even when they tell the unstained truth, we seriously doubt them? Is our skepticism so profound that we no longer believe anything officials say?
That's what I sensed years ago walking home from school -- a betrayal of trust, a broken bond, a shroud of alienation. If the president of the United States could be slain so publicly, then no one was safe.
Innocence evaporated that Nov. 22. The country was driven from Camelot. And the intervening years have not restored our stricken faith. Aggregated tragedies borne by the nation are heaped in a pile, akin to a stack of dry-rotted wood for a campfire.
There it burns, the ashes like sooty black bats flitting around us, wafting and hovering as we watch, our cheeks singed, weeping at the ruins and emulating the widow Jacqueline clutching the remnants of her husband's brain -- as helpless and despondent as a lonely child forsaken in the rain.
Diane Vrabel is a training coordinator and retired IRS employee who lives in Mt. Lebanon (firstname.lastname@example.org).