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November 22, 1963 through a YouTube Lens [Commentary]

It's a rambling conversation among three high school students at the next table, interrupted by customized ring tones and scores of texts. So they talk, and their heads bob up and down, and their fingers are in constant motion. What catches my attention is that they're talking about the John F. Kennedy assassination (maybe the 50th anniversary is making it a trending topic), but their facts are sketchy.

For a minute, I think about gently leaning over into their space and setting the record straight. I realize, though, that if I start talking in an "I was there" tone, they will look at me as if I'd been front row at Ford's Theatre, too. When I do the math, I realize that, chronologically, they're about as far from Kennedy's death as I was from the McKinley assassination (about which I know nothing). I wisely stay silent.

Parkside Junior High School was a pretty buttoned-up place in 1963, which was where I sat on the day President Kennedy was killed. Another teacher knocked on our classroom door and motioned for Miss Simmons to come into the hall. From my seat I could see our teacher — eyes wide and hand over her mouth. When she walked back in and picked up the chalk again, she struggled to regain her composure but eventually got back to the French Revolution. No one asked what was wrong.

When the principal came on the loud speaker later and said, "Today in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot. The bullet was fatal," Kennedy had already been dead for more than an hour.

At home, my mother was ironing. Today, thanks to YouTube videos that show the news coverage as it was unfolding on November 22, I can see exactly how the word reached her in our living room. CBS was airing As the World Turns, and two characters were talking about their upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Without warning, the picture changed to a black screen with the word BULLETIN stamped across it in white letters. There was a ruffling of papers and then Walter Cronkite's unmistakable voice. The first details were in audio only — the shootings of Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally, and that they had been rushed to Parkland Hospital. Those facts took less than a minute to deliver, and then Cronkite said: "Stay tuned to CBS News for further details." What followed was a commercial for Nescafé Coffee, a promotion for an upcoming episode of "Route 66," and then back to the same two soap opera characters, who were still talking about Thanksgiving dinner.

The footage stuns me with its clumsiness as much as its age, and soon I'm poring over all the YouTube videos of the day that I can find. Broadcasters rushed to get on the air, some of them out of breath, all of them male and white. Behind them — oblivious to the camera — men ripped copy off wire service machines. Some of the anchormen wore rumpled shirts and crooked ties. They ran their hands through their hair and smoked wildly as they read from sheets of paper and talked on big bulky telephones to reporters in Dallas.

Watching the archival video makes me feel a little like I lived in the Dark Ages. Fifty years ago I sat in a classroom news blackout waiting to hear what had gone terribly wrong. Compare that sad little picture to the students in the restaurant, the whole universe at the ready inside their iPhones. They will never have to wait for the principal to deliver the message or sit through a commercial in a 24-hour news cycle.

My memories of what happened that day in Dallas are forever in black and white. The details came in dribs and drabs. Looking back now, I wonder how we put up with the excruciating slowness of it all. But I also see the pain etched across Walter Cronkite's face and hear the words caught in his throat as he made the announcement that the president had died.

For a minute, I feel nostalgic. Until I find myself Googling "McKinley assassination." There are advantages to having one foot in each century.

Linda DeMers Hummel is a freelance writer who lives in Rodgers Forge. Her email is lindadhummel@gmail.com.
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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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