Fallen JFK Left Us Led by a Riderless Horse

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- President Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago today. I was 5. It was a Friday, a school day. My older brothers recall teachers openly weeping and others acting bizarrely under the pressure of trying to deal with the impact of the news and herd large classrooms full of bewildered kids through the remains of their school day.

There weren't TVs in our building of course, like there were for 9/11. TVs in the classroom were still mostly the realm of science fiction. The teachers got the news from radio and phone calls. The shooting happened 1:30 EST so decisions had to be made about how to get through the next couple hours and get the kids on busses and get them home. Some parents came and picked up their kids. Confusion reigned.

The shock stopped everything. Work was left unfinished on desks and factory floors. To say the nation was stunned just doesn't do it justice. Had aliens landed and taken the president away, the cognitive dissonance that hit most of the country would hardly have been more pronounced.

To be honest, I know all that second hand. I was 5. The day of the assassination itself is just one segment of the long blur of my early childhood. 

But the funeral -- that's different. I remember the funeral.

I was in the basement den of our house in Ohio. There was a fire in the fireplace. My Dad, my brothers and I were watching the funeral on the black and white TV set.

My Mom wasn't there. This is significant. She was in the house, someplace. But not with us, not in front of the TV. That was confusing to me at the time. Looking at it now, I understand. She couldn't handle it.

I was a hyper kid. I remember being told repeatedly to hush, to sit down and be still. My Dad was stretched out on the floor and tried to get my attention focused on the service on the screen.

"You see that horse?" he said. "The one with no rider?"

I saw it. And suddenly, I got it.

"That is for the president. The riderless horse is for the fallen leader."

 

That was his horse. Our family had a horse -- Duchess. She was an old mare that we inherited when we bought the property. We rode her. I knew from caring for her that horses needed people. So I was worried about the president's horse.

A soldier was leading the horse. The soldier was grim and firm. But the horse wasn't at all sure it wanted to be there and didn't understand why it had to be led such a long way, why it wasn't being ridden. It was dancing sideways, the way a confused horse will do, pulling at the reins.

The anxiety of the horse seemed to add a layer of stress to the solemn parade. A horse without its rider couldn't lead the procession, couldn't lead the nation. I got that too.

What I didn't get, at least until much, much later, was the confusion among the adults. The reactions of the teachers were just the beginning and there would ultimately be no end. None of them understood then or understand to this day why we had lost our leader, why the horse had to be led, riderless, at the head of this state procession.

John Kennedy Jr. was 3. His birthday was the same day as the funeral, Nov. 25, 1963. He saluted the casket, standing beside his mother. I thought he was being very brave. If that were my Dad, I wouldn't have been able to manage it.

I can't tell you why the Kennedy administration was so magical for so many. He gave us ambition and drama on a grand scale and a kind of Hollywood-style infusion of hope that allowed us to gloss over his and our many indiscretions and imperfections. Perhaps if he had lived, some of the magic would have faded. We'll never know.

All of the conspiracy theories -- whatever truths they may ultimately uncover -- are an expression of the basic, primitive confusion everyone felt on that day, 50 years ago. However individuals may have felt about Kennedy as a politician, as a man, as a Catholic -- oh yes, a lot of people hated him because he was Irish Catholic -- the country was united in finding the grief and confusion over this death inconsolable and complete.

That amazing state funeral procession seemed to go on forever, glorious and grotesque, bone-crushingly sad and unspeakably beautiful.

By now, today, John Jr. is long dead, Jackie Kennedy became Jackie Onassis and is long dead. Our one, best chance at redemption, Robert Kennedy's campaign for president in 1968, ended in more disaster, a repeat of the same grief, bewilderment, sinking us into a new national despair. As if the president had been shot all over again and would go on being shot, each November, each election, and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

It was all a long time ago. I was a kid, grappling with that stuff. My Dad tried to help, but after 1968, he lost his interest in politics. He couldn't explain any of it any better than I could. Nobody could.

But I'm 55 now -- older than my Dad was in 1963 -- and here's what I think: Like the Civil War, President Kennedy's assassination is something we have not yet and may never fully recover from as a nation. We have not explained it to ourselves.

That horse is still riderless, still pulling at the reins. The funeral procession still goes on.

--Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park

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