Death of a Hero
On November 22, fifty three years ago, our 35th President, John J. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 Dallas time. If you are over 65, you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, how you felt, how it affected you. This was a major even in our nation’s history.
Lesser known are the effects of JFK’s assassination on our personal lives. The story below recounts how the events of that day dramatically changed a young woman’s life. The photos roughly chronicle the events as they unfolded.
“Need these by five,” my boss mumbled, scattering a stack of files on my desk and lumbering off, tie askew, trailing a cloud of pipe smoke. I glanced at office clock on the wall above me. It read 12:18 PM.
I nodded; more resigned than annoyed. I had an ambivalent relationship with my boss. He was a great untidy bear of a man, prone to harmless bluster and the sort of absentminded foibles and miscalculations that bring out the maternal instinct in women. A kind and generous man, he was unfailingly optimistic, well-read and surprisingly intelligent, given his mind-numbing job as Lead Patent Attorney. I enjoyed long philosophical conversations with him and was flattered that he valued my opinion. I liked him. I liked working for him. In fact, I probably had a crush on him.
But Frank Bluxom was not an easy boss. He was hopelessly disorganized and an inveterate procrastinator. Much of my day was spent looking for things he had misplaced; a file, his pipe, his stapler, even his telephone, which sometimes could only be found by following the cord to where it was hiding beneath a conglomeration of files, crumpled notes, paper clips, pipe tobacco, sometimes even his hat.
True to form, he’d received these patents for review three days ago but had only begun reviewing them this morning. In retrospect, this should have enraged rather than simply annoyed me. Reviewing the applications consisted mostly of scrawling comments on the forms, occasionally fortressed with a few hours’ research in the law library. Completing them on the typewriter, however, was a nerve-wracking challenge in the pre-Xerox, pre-Microsoft world. For each page, legal sized forms with seven slippery, inky carbon copies had to be assembled into a sandwich, coaxed into the carriage of an electric typewriter and aligned. Inevitably this precarious assemblage slowly began to separate, breath-holding by heart-sinking bit as it neared the bottom of the page. Once this happened, erasing was impossible and a single error meant retyping the entire page…. with its copies.I never made it through all the forms without retyping at least one.
My heart sank. All week I had been looking forward to my Friday shopping trip with my friend Katie. But now it wasn’t going to be possible to finish these files without skipping lunch and working late. But far worse, when I arrived home late, I risked confronting an unpredictable and volatile husband, angry and suspicious because I was late, his suspicion fueled by the fact that I received no extra compensation for overtime. I dreaded the long ride home, standing on the crowded city bus, nauseated by the its jerking motion, enveloped in a cloud of sweat and exhaust fumes. I obsessively rehearsed in my head my what I would say as I walked in the door, a futile exercise since his reaction was impossible to predict. In fact, sometimes I would be met with a cheery “Hi, Honey, how was your day?”
But not usually. He could be silent for hours, refusing to eat the dinner I prepared. It was not uncommon for him to hurl a random object around the room, an ashtray, a book, or worse, if I were late more than an hour, pin me against the wall, screaming at me for being unfaithful.
I should have been angry. No, I should have quit. The job AND the marriage. But I was young and naive. I didn’t know that I deserved respect. In my warped perspective, I saw all the abuse in my life as a challenge. I fancied myself some kind of superwoman.
I was lost in thought, still hoping to somehow squeeze in my shopping trip when Lawler Stevens, the Senior
Partner, suddenly burst through his door, two offices down and declared loudly “The President’s been shot,” in a tone more appropriate to the announcement of a football score.
The typewriters slowly fell silent as his words sank in. We sat stunned, faces frozen in disbelief, the only sound the click of the second hand on the office clock. Suzanne, at the desk ahead finally broke the silence in a quavering voice, “Mr. Stevens, are you sure? I mean…Shot?!”
Ignoring her, he said tersely, “Everyone in my office.”
We entered tentatively, like stray dogs sneaking into a house while
the owners were away. Only Evelyn, his private secretary and the attorneys ever crossed that hallowed threshold. I silently prayed no one would notice my spike heels, badly in need of caps, snagging the plush gold carpet at every step.
Degrees from prestigious universities, awards from prominent legal organizations and commendations from community groups were tastefully framed on the paneled wall behind Mr. Steven’s enormous mahogany desk, his high-backed leather chair slightly askew where he had hastily abandoned it.
On the credenza behind his desk, a stereo set was tuned to the local public radio station. Incredibly, it was true. Walter Cronkite was detailing the events in familiar paternal tones as they unfolded. Drawn by the excitement, people from nearby offices crowded the door, anxious whispers of “What’s going on? What? What happened?” mingled with sobs and murmurs of those inside. I stood in stunned silence. My hand went to my mouth to stifle a scream too deep to surface. Suzanne began to weep. Evelyn warily observed Lawler Stevens’ increasing discomfort with the show of emotion. A blush of red began spreading over his face. He motioned Evelyn over.
“Get them out of here,” I heard him whisper to her. “I thought I was doing them a favor, asking them in to hear the news, but I was expecting them to act like adults, for crissake. Bunch of crybabies. What the hell do they expect, the Kennedys have always been corrupt. Bound to have enemies.”
“But Lawler, I thought you wanted – I mean, the President’s just…”
“I said, “he hissed, “Get. Them. Out. Of. HERE!”
“Oh, Will,” please. “Will,” short for William, Lawler Stevens’ middle name, was Evelyn’s pet name for him. He glowered at her. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of her disobedience or her careless allusion to their poorly kept secret.
She acquiesced. “Hey, everyone,” Evelyn announced in a loud and cheery voice. “This is awful, I know, but Mr. Stevens would like some time by himself right now, it’s been such a shock and all, so if we could just go on back…”
“But the radio.” I began timidly. Personal radios were not allowed at
our work stations.
Stevens, now seated at his desk, glowered at me, “It’s not the goddamn end of the world,” he growled. “At least we didn’t lose a Republican. Now, we have deadlines and I intend to see that we meet them. And that means YOU need to meet YOURS!” He slammed a bulging file on his desk and began untying its leather ties.
Frank Bluxom lumbered obediently out of the office, head down, rumpled suit jacket askew, a rag-tag parade of subdued attorneys and stunned secretaries following. I walked slowly, anger rising in my chest, to my scarred office desk with its rump sprung typing chair, no longer caring whether my heels snagged the expensive carpet.
The phone was ringing as I sat down. It was Katie. “Did you HEAR?” Katie worked in the Marketing Department five floors above.
“Oh Annie, our poor country.” She was crying.
“I know,” I said. “I can’t work.”
“Neither can I. Shopping is out anyway, let’s just go for a quick smoke. I have a transistor radio.”
We walked past the gleaming steel walls of the lobby, through thick glass doors, pulling our sweaters around us against the chill of the brisk November morning. The sun reflecting off the metal towers of Hammond Steel International created pools of shimmering light on the nearby lake. We meandered through manicured rows of native wildflowers meticulously maintained by the Botanical Society to our favorite bench beside the lake. Open to the public, Hammond Gardens was widely touted as a major cultural contribution to the community and a lavish gift to Hammond’s 3000+ employees. However, the gardens were seldom visited by Hammond employees, a testimony to the disconnect between the Hammond Board and its employees.
The details of the conversation between Katie and me that November day are buried under decades of memories. I suspect we just sat with each other, trying to make out Walter Cronkite’s voice on Katie’s crackling transistor radio, crying and hugging each other, fearing for our country. Mourning the loss of our President, our hero, the loss of Camelot, the death of a dream. That mourning, that morning, I do remember. Remember it well.
I lost more than a national hero that day. My lifelong assumption that ours was a country set apart, safe and secure, immune and unconnected to war and misery in distant countries, that comforting blanket of naivety, was rudely and irretrievably ripped from me. That day represents for me the first crack in the facade of national innocence. But it was only a crack. We clung to our fragile illusion; we wanted to believe it. It was so much easier to believe that truth is either black or white than to bother with the shifting grey shades of reality. We wanted to believe that good people who play by the rules will always win, and that bad people, and only bad people will be tracked down and punished. We wanted; we thought we had, a “Gunsmoke” kind of world.
We clung to the hope that this horrible day was a rare anomaly, that things would soon return to “normal.” After all, after Lincoln’s assassination, the country didn’t fall apart, did it? But sadly and soon, other wrenching losses followed on our heartbreaking journey to our national loss of innocence.
And the terrifying events of the day jarred me into seeing my own world through different eyes. I’d always admired the attorneys I worked for. This was my first job after high school. could hardly believe my good fortune to work for, even to know, such important people. They led the kind of lives I’d only read about in books. They had Ivy league educations, belonged to the Country Club, had addresses that ended in Avenue, Court, Circle, Blvd., not, as in my case, Apt No.
Until that day, Lawler Stevens, in particular, was to me the embodiment of the American Dream. Athletic and tanned with a tumble of thick sandy hair above a high forehead, he was handsome in the casual way of those born to privilege. His suits were custom tailored, his ties silk, and he wore a Rolex. As an undergraduate, he was a member of the prestigious Harvard rowing team. He graduated Yale Law School at the top of his class and reportedly had a IQ in the 140s. He had a six figure income, a beautiful wife who frequented expensive spas, scorned costume jewelry and drove a red Alpha Romeo convertible. He had two children in private school and a summer home in the Hamptons. He drove a Jaguar.
I, on the other hand, graduated from a small rural high school in the rural South and my entry level secretarial position paid slightly over minimum wage. My husband was a poorly educated and frequently unemployed blue collar worker. My children-to-be would attend public schools. I took the bus to work. I had no clue what my IQ was, or really even WHAT an IQ was.
I can’t say that November 21, 1963 had an immediate effect on my world view. But it was a crack in the facade, a rip in the fabric. I began to see that heroes were vulnerable. That people could hate my heroes. And by observing their self-centered and callous reactions to a tragic event for our nation, I began to see that all powerful people were not heroes. Certainly Lawler Stevens was not. He was so arrogant to be oblivious of history happening in front of him. He was a fool.
And the other attorneys had done nothing this day or any other to oppose Lawler’s outrageous demands and insensitive treatment of his employees. They colluded in covering up his affair with his secretary, which in those days could have been grounds for his dismissal and certainly hers, since Hammond’s President and Founder, Henry Hammond was staunchly Mormon. They gossiped about Stevens in hushed whispers behind his back and curried his favor in his presence. Given the opportunity, they would have stepped over his body without a backward glance in their race to grab power for themselves.
Even my teddy bear of a boss, I had to admit, was no friend. He saw nothing disrespectful in delaying his work until the last minute, unfairly pressuring me to compensate for his procrastination and disorganization. If he had any appreciation of the difficulty of my job or the stress he subjected me to, he never acknowledged it. My completed work was usually met with a muffled “Mfffph” or no comment at all as he walked away with the files, puffing on his pipe. When I confided in him my dream of continuing my education, he actively opposed it.
“What are you thinking?” he bellowed in disbelief. The other secretaries stopped their typing and looked up.
“You couldn’t compete with those students! They’re 10 years younger and graduated from expensive prep schools! Why they’d eat you alive!” Noticing my hurt and disappointment, he quickly added. “It’s just that I’d hate to see you get hurt like that.”
Fighting back tears, I slunk back to my desk. All eyes were on me, wide with pity. It was mortifying, but also motivating. It was soon after that I seriously began plans to continue my education. It would be a long, torturous path, but his callous disdain had given me the push I needed. In retrospect, I doubt that his reaction was about me at all. I suspect he knew his chances of replacing me with someone as competent that would also indulge his outrageous behavior were slim to none. It took a while, but finally – I quit that job. And entered the university.
Everyone knows exactly where they were at 12:30, Dallas time, November 22, 1963. In moments such as these we are shaken into reality, forced to evaluate our priorities. In the view of many, that day marks the end of our innocence as a nation. And for me and perhaps others, in facing the loss of a true hero, we gained courage to re-evaluate our priorities and to honor our own integrity.