The Darkest Day 

1 January 2004

Forty years ago on November 22nd was, until September 11th of 2001, perhaps the darkest day in the history of the United States.

Some of my personal memories of that weekend involved watching those events on TV. Transdiffusion’s Kif Bowden-Smith wrote for this website an excellent article on how the BBC and Granada covered for the UK the first news of the assassination; I thought I’d do the same on how television in the United States covered this story.

I was just about a month short of my 8th birthday. For some reason I don’t remember, I was home at 1:30pm that afternoon, along with my kid brother (who was 4 1/2) and our Mom (a stay-at-home housewife, as most American moms with young children were back then). We lived just outside of Boston in Norwood, Massachusetts, which is where I still reside.

Mom was taking an afternoon nap. With my little brother, I was “sort of” watching “Mike Douglas”, a syndicated chat show which had just started being transmitted nationally that August. In Boston, it was screened by WBZ-TV Channel 4.

At about 1:40pm, the programme was interrupted for a news flash (or news bulletin, as we called them here). There was a “Bulletin” slide and an out-of-vision announcer reported that three shots had been fired at the motorcade of President Kennedy in Dallas, and that one of the bullets had hit the President.

Then, WBZ-TV went back to “Mike Douglas”.

That was all my kid brother and I needed to wake up our Mom. Boy, did we ever make noise! We told her “Wake Up! The President has been Shot!”

Mom did wake up, but by the time she got to the TV set – it must have been almost five minutes after the first flash – WBZ was still screening “Mike Douglas”. Mom angrily said, “If President Kennedy had REALLY been shot, they wouldn’t be running Mike Douglas…”

As soon as the words “Mike Douglas” came out of Mom’s mouth, the programme was interrupted again, this time with a slide saying “NBC News Special Report” (as WBZ-TV was an NBC affiliate at that time).

A deep-voiced out-of-vision announcer (for years, I thought it was NBC news presenter Chet Huntley; I have since learned it was Don Pardo, who was doing continuity booth duty that day at NBC New York) repeated the first report of the three shots fired at the motorcade, one bullet hitting the President, but added an ominous new detail: The wounds were very serious, possibly even fatal.

Mom immediately apologized to us, as she first thought we were kidding. Now she knew we weren’t.

Mom took control of the TV set and changed channels, looking for the latest details. Like most Americans of that period, we had the choice of three commercial networks. Stopping on CBS, she heard news presenter Walter Cronkite pass on a report from a young CBS correspondent in Dallas by the name of Dan Rather (who would eventually succeed Cronkite as CBS’s main news presenter) that the President had died, but it wasn’t official, that it was not confirmed. Cronkite seemed to repeat the fact that the President’s death was NOT officially confirmed every 30 to 45 seconds.

Shortly after 2:30, Cronkite was handed a news flash, and his announcement of it has become perhaps the best known soundbite in the history of American television news: “A flash, apparently official. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy died at 1 o’clock Central Standard Time, about 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty minutes ago. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson will now assume the office of President, becoming the 36th President of the United States”.

A few moments later, Mom briefly turned off the TV set to explain to my brother and I that Lyndon Johnson was now President. At first, I thought Mom said “Linda Johnson”, so I said “That means we have a woman President”. Mom corrected me. Then the TV was turned back on.

My Dad at the time worked at a car dealership in Newton Center, Massachusetts, a few miles from our home. About an hour after the death of President Kennedy had been confirmed, my Dad came home. Dad admitted he sped home, driving at well over 80 miles an hour to get home as soon as possible, listening to the news on his car radio as he drove home.

Dad asked Mom if any films had been screened yet on television. After 4pm, there was some film of the scene after the bullets had been fired, but no network had managed to capture the actual shooting on film. A man named Abraham Zapruder did, but Life magazine purchased the film and, as a result, it was kept off television for many years.

One other memory of that weekend: That Sunday morning, we had gone to Logan Airport in Boston not to travel, but because at the time, there was a public observation deck on top of the terminal where one could see jet planes take off, land, and taxi to/from the gates.

My parents probably took us there to get our young minds off the national tragedy. En route home – it was almost noon – we heard on the car radio that suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was about to be transferred from the Dallas Police headquarters to a local jail.

By the time we had returned to our house and the TV set was turned-on and warmed-up (it was tuned into NBC), we all saw Oswald being escorted out of the basemrew Bowden::xoefebNjfCodwGon – only to be shot and fatally wounded seconds later.

While we later learned that NBC was the only network that transmitted the shooting live, all three networks ran videotape replays, some in slow motion, of the murder of Oswald throughout the rest of that day.

It’s been forty years, but in some respects, it seems like only yesterday.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Saturday 22 June 2024