It’s always a milestone. It’s the wedding anniversary called “Golden.” It’s the first birthday in one’s life that seems to have much more significance than the rest, so far (wait till 60 and…). It’s guaranteed there will be a large proportion of people who “were there.” It means more than Centennial celebrations. Everybody can read about the speeches, the war endings, the 100 year anniversaries of the birthdays of the famous, all the Centennial memorials. We can even see film of the centennial celebrations, hear live reports.
It’s not the same as “being there.” There’s a personal memory, not often truly-accurate as we’re finding out more about our brains. But we think it’s accurate because we have our personal emotions tied up with those memories.
So, it’s fitting today to remember where we were when we heard the news that changed us as a nation and as an individual.
I’ve hardly ever talked about it. That entire weekend was a painful one. But that particular day, fifty years ago today, was mixed with sadness, anger, violence, anger, sadness, in that order.
There were no cell phones so texts, tweets, jpgs, and streaming news were uncreated words at that time. I was working in a mid-management office in a large auto-parts manufacturing plant in Indiana. There were about ten guys and two ladies in this office, and it was situated directly in the middle of the plant, where 850 UAW workers were building steering gears for jeeps, John Deere, Farmall and Allis Chalmers tractors, army tanks and huge Caterpillar equipment.
My job, Asst. Service Manager, was to hand-carry (no computers either) build-orders for service parts for equipment that was down and broken. These were emergency orders, yet one could only assemble a steering gear by having multiple parts from multiple departments. I would visit the foreman of each of these departments to strategize inserting these orders into the next batch of that particular part’s assembly run. By being in every department every day, I knew at least 90% of the workers by their first name. I would sometimes stand by their machine waiting for a long steering rod to be welded and straightened. Wait while a housing unit was heated, forged and punched out.
Fifty years ago, a chilly Friday, the plant manager came out of his private office and announced that the President had been shot in Dallas. We all froze in horror. He had no other information. He asked us to try to stay productive and not tie up company telephones to talk to family or friends. The only way the factory workers could find out any breaking news was by company bulletin boards which were prominently displayed in every department next to the water coolers, restrooms, Coke and candy machines.
Some forty minutes or so after the horrible news of the shooting, I was near the bulletin board in the Cam & Tube Department. That was significant because my father was the foreman of that department at the time. There was always horseplay, teasing and joking going on. It’s that way in any tedious manufacturing job where one stands or sits at a machine where they are being paid “piece-rates.” In the Cam & Tube there was a gooney bird looking fellow who was always causing trouble. Believe it or not, everyone called him “gooney-bird.” Today, 2013, Gooney-Bird would sue the factory, the union and five or six individuals for harassment and take his millions and retire with a fat disability check. Not so in 1963. You gave shit and you took shit—some more than others.
A sudden stoppage of work on the Cam & Tube floor sent every worker flying towards the bulletin board. A front-office clerk had been going from department to department stapling up the official news that our President had died. Everyone rushed to see the single sentence on the full-sized typewriter page. I didn’t need to see it. I was sick inside and started for the privacy of my office. There at the Coke machine stood Gooney-Bird, who had been one of the first ones at the bulletin board. He now stood behind all the workers who were seeing the news for the first time. Over the hushed silence of the crowd of men, Gooney-Bird loudly proclaimed, “It’s about time somebody shot that nigger-lover.”
A hot rush of anger enveloped me. Before I could reply, move or shout him down, at least 20 angry UAW co-workers stormed Gooney-Bird at the Coke machine and beat the living crap out of him. It was over as quick as it started. I think every guy had at least one punch or kick and walked away in disgust. I stood and watched and almost felt sorry for that pathetic piece of crap. As I walked by him he looked up at me with his bloody face, smashed nose, broken teeth and his arms holding his ribs and groaning. I simply said, “Have a nice day.”