Tomorrow, the minds of millions and millions across the country and around the world will be focussed upon and will recall a day of national tragedy, and well that day should be remembered. However, I am today thinking of a more personal recollection.
On the evening of Thursday 21 November 1963, my family sat down to dinner at the big kitchen table in our house at 8417 Crown Place in Fort Hunt, Virginia, just a short walk from the Potomac River, and a short drive to Washington, D.C. The table at which we sat was actually made from a heavy wooden door mounted on a steel frame; Mom had gotten it on sale at The Door Store in Georgetown. It was a practical and inexpensive solution to accommodate a large family. We were at that time a family of eight: Mom and Dad, and in order of age, Bill, Anne, Chris, Susan, and Rob and me. Two benches along the length of the table sat three kids each, Mom and Dad sat at the ends. On that evening, Rob and I and Anne were on one side, Dad to my left, Mom to my right. After saying Grace, Dad cut up a substantial meatloaf, and we passed the mashed potatoes and the vegetable (Brussels sprouts! No one really enjoyed them …) And, naturally, we began talking about events of the day and other matters.
It is perhaps unusal that I have a vivid memory of a family dinner of fifty years ago, but I have good reason to recall it.
We engaged in the usual dinner hour conversation. Rob and I were excited because we were to celebrate our fifth birthday in two days with a party to which several of our friends were invited. Our birthday was actually not until the following Tuesday, but the Party was scheduled for that Saturday for logistical reasons. My Mom and Dad asked the “big kids” about their day at school as they typically did. Brother Bill complained about an assignment in Latin class; Chris asked about getting help with his science homework.
My sister Anne began to talk about a book that she was reading. The book was Jim Bishop’s classic, hour by hour dissection of 14 April 1865, The Day Lincoln Was Shot. Anne asked my Dad about many of the troubling questions the book raised, especially about the inadequate security provided for the President that day. A lively discussion ensued.
Because we lived so near to where these events had unfolded almost a century earlier, the discussion seemed more like a conversation about current events than a digression into the distant past. We had seen Ford’s Theater, for example. Washington D.C. and its environs were familiar indeed.
I recall my Mom explaining about Booth’s flight from the capital, Doctor Mudd’s alleged complicity, and Booth’s ultimate death in a Virginia tobacco barn, shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. My Mom told us that Booth’s death was a terrible loss, since it meant that so many questions were unanswered.
“They should have arrested him and put him on trial,” Mom said.
And I shall never forget my Dad’s observation that, “It seems they always shoot the assassins.”
Given the tragedy which unfolded the next day, this particular dinner hour has always remained starkly clear in my memory.
Flower Mound, Texas
Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana