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Out of the Woods / The pain of a life-changing day, 50 years later

Published 6:21 am, Wednesday, November 20, 2013
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It was exactly 50 years ago Friday, at about 2 p.m. on a beautiful sunny afternoon in New York, that I brought my wife and five-day-old baby daughter home from the hospital on upper Fifth Avenue to our apartment on Washington Square in Manhattan.

I drove extra carefully and kept my eye on the rear-view mirror to make certain my wife and child were OK. I was moving so slowly that the cars behind me started to honk their horns.

No matter, I said to myself. In my mind our baby was the first one ever born.

It was at that moment that my life changed for good. No longer was my role as a reporter the most important thing in my life.

Other than getting married in 1962, this was without a doubt the happiest day of my life. My city editor at the New York World-Telegram & Sun had gladly given me the day off, so I had no worries at all about completing any reporting assignments that day -- Friday, Nov. 22.

The trip home went smoothly, but as I pulled up to the curb in front of our building, Charlie, our friendly doorman, seemed completely out of sorts. He had tears in his eyes.

Momentarily, I thought those were tears of joy upon seeing our new baby. But, as he approached our car, he haltingly stuttered: "Kennedy has been shot. It's terrible. It's terrible."

I did not really understand what he was saying. My mood was so high, his words did not penetrate. I was totally confused. We hurried down our first-floor hallway and turned on the television in the living room.

Then, at that very moment, it hit me, as if I had been punched in the stomach and the head at the same time. My feelings of happiness and content -- which I enjoyed only a few moments before -- slowly dissolved as I realized the enormity of what had happened to John F. Kennedy, a man I deeply admired, one might even say worshipped, since his historic election in 1960.

I remember having conflicting emotions. It was as if my world went from wonderfully joyous after the birth of our child, to the tragedy of the assassination, in a few short hours. As a reflexive newsman, I thought for a moment that I should call my city desk and ask if I should go down to Barclay Street in lower Manhattan where the newspaper was located.

I opted to remain with my new family.

Half a century later, I have not forgotten that remarkable experience.

Postscript:

A few years later, in the spring of 1966, I took on a new role as New York Mayor John V. Lindsay's first press secretary. Lindsay asked me to accompany him to a conference of mayors from across the country Dallas. The first morning after we arrived, I got up early.

The hotel restaurant was crowded. I waited impatiently to be served. Finally, waving my arm to get her attention, I managed to get a waitress to come to where I was sitting at a counter."You from New York?" she asked angrily. I said I was.

"Well, we did not kill him, you know," she snapped.

After eating quickly, I took a walk to see for myself the Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. I stared up at the building and the window from which he fired the shots. It was hard to believe.

Then, I turned to a souvenir stand nearby, thinking I would bring some trinkets home. But when I spotted a pair of salt and pepper shakers painted like John and Jackie Kennedy, I felt nauseous. The crassness only confirmed my alienation from Dallas all the more.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com