Thanksgiving week is a time to remember, to reflect, to give thanks. Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When it happened I was a student at Oxford University in England. For me and for many, many others, the events of that day are frozen in my memory: cold, still, horrible.
The local time at Oxford was seven hours ahead of Dallas, meaning those fatal shots were fired at 7:30 that Friday evening.
I — with around 25 others — was seated at a formal black-tie dinner in a beautiful candle-lit, oak-paneled room at University College. The main course had just been served when the college’s Master, Sir John Redcliffe-Maud, stood up at the end of the table.
His face was white and his hands trembled. “I am very deeply sorry to announce that President Kennedy has been shot while on a visit to Dallas, Texas. He is not expected to survive.”
I was the only American in the room, and I wasn’t ashamed to hold my head in my hands while the tears came. The Master came over and kindly said, “I am terribly sorry for you to hear this awful news in this way. Of course, if you wish to leave the dinner, you are excused.” I stayed for a while and tried to maintain a certain level of conversation, trying to remember Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage — which was also JFK’s — as “grace under pressure.”
But as desert was served, I couldn’t bear it anymore and went back to my room. As I opened the door, I was astonished to find all the lights on, the room filled with my English friends, gathered there to be with their American chum in a desolate hour. Someone turned on the radio and picked up the bulletin from the BBC: The President was dead. I don’t remember the rest of the evening very well, other than that it turned into a kind of wake, with much whiskey being drunk and hugs exchanged with the normally reserved English.