Musings —11.22.2020 01:59 AM—
It was January 1967, just after New Year’s, and my Dad came home from Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where he worked as a doctor. He was preoccupied.
Jack Ruby, the man who had killed Lee Harvey Oswald – and Oswald being the man who had killed John F. Kennedy – was dying of cancer at the hospital, my Dad told us. The Warren Commission would later conclude that Ruby was a nobody. But, for a man considered so unremarkable by the powers-that-be, he had attracted a remarkable amount of attention from the powerful.
“There are FBI agents all over the hospital,” my father told us, a bit bewildered. “Dozens of them. None of us can get anywhere near the floor where he is. They don’t want anyone talking to him, or interacting with him.”
To us – Irish Catholic Canadians living in Dallas – Ruby’s fate was of more than passing interest. To us, Kennedy had been our hope, our liberator, our Obama before there was Obama. He was the first Irish Catholic to become President, and – from the perspective of my Irish Catholic family, then and now – he was murdered on November 22, 1963 principally because of that.
My maternal grandmother was succinct about it all, as she was about everything. “We are Irish and Catholic, and we were lower than dirt, to them,” she said. “They killed him because they couldn’t get over the fact an Irish Catholic had become president.”
“They,” of course, were the white, Protestant compact that had ruled the United States of America since its beginnings. And, if you ever doubted the extent of their power, you should have lived with our family in Dallas, Texas in the Sixties. Back then, Dallas was the epicenter of racism and injustice on the continent. It was a furnace of hate.
We didn’t have much money, because my Dad was starting out, and my Mom was at home raising my two brothers and me. We lived next door to a Mexican-American family, and their son David was one of my best friends. But David did not attend David G. Burnet Elementary School with me, where I learned (and still know) the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn’t understand why David didn’t go to the same school as me. But my parents knew.
One day, my Mom spoke to her closest Texas friend, Mrs. Stevenson, and said to her that – one day – David would be permitted to go to school with me. Mrs. Stevenson, who is one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, said this: “Well, on that day, I will go down to the school with my gun.” Sweet as pie. Just like that.
Dallas, Texas – where JFK was shot down in the street, like a stray dog – was like that. On the surface, it was big and friendly and warm. Underneath, the place was seething cauldron of resentments and prejudice. Guns and violence and casual expressions of bigotry were everywhere. Even as a kid, I remembered I was still a Canadian, and therefore a stranger in a strange land.
As the world again reflects on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, there has been much written about his unfulfilled legacy. There has been much written about Dallas, too, and about its efforts to rehabilitate itself. Perhaps it has done so; I can’t remember the last time I was there.
I do remember, however, our family returning to Canada. As our station wagon edged towards the border, my Dad – who was not ever given to melodrama – said he wanted to get out and kiss Canadian soil.
All of us understood, and none of us looked in the rearview mirror at the departing United States – or Dallas, where our King was murdered, on November 22, 1963.