Friday 22nd of November 1963: the day President John F Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas Texas. The next morning, 5,000 miles away in the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth, a seven year old boy and his younger brother, in matching blue dressing gowns, got up early while their parents and baby sister slept on. They listened to Tubby the Tuba on the large gramophone that filled the corner of the dinning room. Then, sitting on the cold carpet, they turned their attention to their Corgi and Matchbox cars, and pushed them along the fresh snail trails that had appeared over night.
After Danny Kay had finished telling the musical adventures of Tubby, the BBC Light programme crackled out of the grey Roberts transistor radio. Like every other Saturday, the boys listened to Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites. Squeezed between the inevitable requests for Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Puff the Magic Dragon, the news bulletin alerted the brothers to the death of John Kennedy.
I was that boy; I could not accept that Kennedy had died. My younger brother asked who Kennedy was. I replied, all knowing and convinced that the President of the United States could not be despatched, that it must be the President’s brother. I knew that, although brothers were fair game, President Kennedy was one of the good guys and was as indestructible as my black and white television heroes, such as The Lone Ranger or Noggin the Nog.
Why was the death of a president from a foreign country so important to a seven-year-old boy in an era long before 24 hour news? In fact my brother and I had not been exposed to much TV at all; we had only had a set for a few months, to coincide with my father’s obsession to watch the cricket season of 1963 and his long vacation from the University, where, as a violinist, he lectured in the music department and led the string quartet. Then, just as the new autumn schedule for kids started and TV began to look interesting, he had sent it back to the hire shop and returned to his lecturing duties.
To compensate for not having a telly, my father bought LPs of children’s stories and songs for my brother and me and comedy for himself. One of his LPs was called ‘The First Family’, and was a series of comedy sketches sending up family life in the White House. My father played this over and over again, until the story of Kennedy’s endless motorcade refusing to fill up at the gas station because they didn’t issue green stamps had become as important to my early cultural life as reading Dan Dare. After the shooting, the LP was hidden away by my father, never to be played again.
Most people in their late 50s and above can probably remember where they were when they first heard about JFK’s untimely death. There are many websites devoted to these memories, and it’s fascinating to see many of the contributors were young children at the time of the assassination.
This phenomenon is not limited to the death of one American President. My parent’s generation knew where they were and what they were doing on the out break of the second world war and since Kennedy, events such as the deaths of John Lennon, Princess Diana and the first election victory for Tony Blair could also be said to have left their mark on most people who were around at the time.
There is something about traumatic events in childhood that stick in the mind. How much of my recall of the Dallas shooting is genuine memory and how much is guesswork is hard to analyse. Much of my story is pieced together from my Saturday morning routines of the early sixties, I don’t know what I had for breakfast that day or when I realized that it had been the President who had died that day, and that his brother was to live on another few years before suffering a similar fate.
Fifty years on, my late father’s LPs lie in a dark cupboard, waiting for the time to come when they are sorted out for distribution to the family or a trip to Oxfam. Amongst them must be his copy of “The First Family”, maybe enough time has passed to dust down the vinyl, dig-out the old record player and give it its first play for 50 years.