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The Good Ol’ Days: Remembering Camelot

By Staff | Dec 18, 2015

Forty-six year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on Friday, November 22, 1963. Bill Gronvold was a 15-year-old sophomore at RHS at the time and he continues his memories of that historic three-day weekend in Part Two of a three-part series.

On Friday afternoon Air Force One departed Dallas Love Field with JFK’s casket on board, along with newly-sworn President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s widow Jackie and others. It had been less than two-and-a-half hours since fatal shots were fired at Kennedy’s motorcade in Dealey Plaza and at this point no one seemed to know just what had happened. The presidential aircraft was scheduled to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland at 5 p.m. Rugby time.

Like we Baby Boomers, television news was in its teenage years in late 1963. There was no satellite technology available, so events were either broadcast live or recorded on film or videotape and then flown to New York for national broadcast. CBS affiliates such as Channel 13 in Minot received network programming over a telephone line.

While the national media was awaiting the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, they continued covering events in Dallas. An unknown CBS Dallas bureau chief, Dan Rather, 32, became an overnight national figure. His clear, concise and intelligent reporting with just a hint of Texas drawl told us about the puzzling, tragic events. His senior colleague in New York, Walter Cronkite, 47, a seasoned veteran of electronic and print journalism going back to before World War II, maintained a vigil in the CBS newsroom and gave bulletins. The earliest news flashes had sporadically interrupted the popular CBS soap opera As the World Turns.

There was a moment during CBS’s coverage when Cronkite received word from Rather, unconfirmed, that JFK was dead. Cronkite was sitting in a cramped writer’s room that had become a makeshift studio. He was in shirtsleeves and tie with other news staffers working nearby and reading bulletins with the aid of black horn-rimmed glasses. When he was handed a page torn from a nearby teletype, Cronkite stopped speaking, put on the glasses, looked over the bulletin sheet for a moment, took off his glasses, tried to compose himself and then made the announcement from the Associated Press:

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time’.”

Cronkite glanced up at a clock and added, “2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some38 minutes ago.” He was obviously struggling to keep his composure and to be able to deliver the horrible words that he never imagined he would ever utter to a national audience. He and Kennedy had been friends for many years.

Some of Cronkite’s media colleagues had likened the Kennedy administration to the popular musical Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and newcomer Robert Goulet. Camelot had opened just after JFK’s November, 1960 election and continued for almost 900 performances until early in 1963. Kennedy’s death had become an eerie coincidence with the closing of Camelot.

Air Force One landed on schedule and was met by a black hearse. A team of men led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother, quickly unloaded the flag-draped casket. Mrs. Kennedy got into the hearse and it sped away into the misty night. She was still wearing her blood-splattered pink suit. When an aide suggested she change into different clothing, the newly-widowed and now former First Lady said, “No, I want them to see what they’ve done to my husband.”

Soon the newly-inaugurated President Johnson stood with his wife Lady Bird in the late autumn darkness, both seemingly alone and abandoned on the Andrews tarmac. He made a short statement, expressing his sympathy and sorrow and closed by asking for “your help, and God’s.”

By late Friday afternoon we had learned that someone named Lee Harvey Oswald had been captured in a Dallas movie theater after running in without paying, some 80 minutes after the attack on JFK’s motorcade. He was charged in connection with the shooting death of policeman J. D. Tippet in a Dallas neighborhood near Oswald’s home. He was also a person of interest in the JFK assassination and was taken to Dallas police headquarters and interrogated by numerous agencies.

We were quickly given information about Mr. Oswald: He grew up in a broken home, moved around a lot, joined the Marines, defected to the Soviet Union, married a Russian girl, came back to the U.S. and was active in a pro-Castro group called “Fair Play for Cuba” and was seen handing out its leaflets on street corners in New Orleans a few months earlier.

Oswald, his wife Marina and their Russian-born infant daughter June had settled in a quiet Dallas neighborhood in October and he had obtained work at the Dallas County school system’s Texas School Book Depository. The Depository was a 7-story building that overlooked Dealey Plaza. It was from a corner window on the sixth floor that the fatal shots were fired, according to investigators.

We learned that Oswald was given a ride to work by a friend that morning and that he was carrying a paper-wrapped bundle of what he described as “curtain rods”. His whereabouts during the noon hour when the Kennedy motorcade drove past the Depository in Dealey Plaza was a mystery.

Reporters were wandering freely inside the Dallas police station and by Saturday a throng had gathered in a crowded hallway outside interrogation rooms and offices. As officials elbowed their way through the mob of scribes, questions were shouted and answers were few and mostly inaudible. By then, journalists from all over the world had arrived in Dallas to cover the biggest story of the latter half of the 20th century.

An official came down the hall holding a rifle above his head, believed to be the JFK murder weapon. It was an Italian-made 6.5 mm bolt-action Carcano that Oswald had purchased via mail order for $19.95. It was found in a corner of the Depository’s sixth floor behind some boxes that had shielded the shooter from view, although everyone had left the building or were on lower floors at the time the shots were fired. Oswald was seen in a second-floor lunch room some ninety seconds after the shooting but was identified as a building employee and released.

Oswald was bundled slowly past the rowdy crowd of reporters from one room into another. He denied shooting anyone, adding that he didn’t know what had happened and kept appealing for “someone to come forward and help me.” His face bore cuts and bruises, his eyes blackened, his lip split and swollen and he still wore his clothing from the previous day. He then disappeared into another room and that was the last we saw of him that Saturday. His last public words were, “I’m a patsy.”

Next Week: Murder in the Dallas Police Station and an historic state funeral conclude Part Three of our three-part series.

Bill grew up in Rugby, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and resides in Orlando, FL where he is a correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel covering high school sports. His heart will always be with the Heart of America.


The Final Part of a 3 Part Series

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 46-years old and the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on Friday, November 22, 1963. Bill Gronvold was a 15-year-old RHS sophomore at the time and he concludes his memories of that historic three-day weekend in Part Three of a three-part series.

On Friday, shortly after 1:00 p.m., RHS Principal Delvin Easton made the first of two announcements to a shocked and unbelieving student body and staff. He said that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas. Then, a few minutes later, came his chilling, time-freezing words that the president was dead. School was dismissed for the day at 2:00 p.m. and all activities were cancelled. We were told to monitor local radio (KGCA) as to when to return to school. I spent the entire weekend watching Minot’s Channel 13 (CBS).

Things went on as usual in Rugby on Saturday. Businesses remained open and shoppers shopped. It was a big day at the Super Fair and other Rugby-area markets in preparation for the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend.

As the Kennedy family prepared for Monday’s state funeral, the country gathered its breath and went into quiet reflection. Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that the NFL would be playing a full schedule of (untelevised) games on Sunday. The rival American Football League (AFL) decided to cancel all their games out of respect to the late President. Rozelle later regretted his decision. He said that, at the time, he felt that JFK “would have wanted the games to be played.becausehe loved competition.”

In the Rugby of 1963, Sunday was a day when businesses closed, except for a gas station or two and a restaurant. Sunday, November 24th was no different. After church, my family paid a call on my grandmother. We watched her TV and the breaking story that assumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot about an hour earlier as he was being taken through the basement of the Dallas police station while being transferred to the Dallas County Jail. CBS had managed to videotape what had transpired and was regularly replaying it:

A group of reporters and law enforcement officials had assembled in the basement and were watching as Oswald, escorted by two plainclothes officers, was led to a vehicle. A car horn sounded nearby. Suddenly a stocky man in a dark suit and black fedora hat came forward with a revolver and fired point blank into Oswald’s lower chest, mortally wounding him. Oswald appeared to make eye contact with the man as he lunged at him and then Oswald let out a loud groan as he was hit. The tall escorting officer to his right, dressed in a light-colored suit and Stetson hat, grimaced in horror at the perilous proximity of the shooting. The gunman was quickly overpowered and disarmed.

He was identified as “Jack Ruby”, the owner of a local strip club and a so-called friend of the police. He was born Jacob Leon Rubenstein and had rumored ties with the Chicago “mob”, which the networks chose to de-emphasize. Ruby claimed that he shot Oswald out of love for JFK. He was convicted of murder and died in prison three years later of lung cancer. Many unanswered questions died with him.

Oswald was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead at 1:08 p.m. CST, some 48 hours almost to the minute after JFK’s death. All that remained in this deadly drama was Act Three.

The curtain rose on Monday morning and all the principal players were in place. World leaders, including France’s towering 6′ 5″ Charles De Gaulle had gathered for the funeral, a requiem Mass to be held in St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The late President’s flag-draped closed casket had initially been taken to the White House East Room and later was brought to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building for viewing. Tens of thousands of mourners from all walks of life slowly filed by to tearfully pay their last respects.

TV cameras in the Rotunda captured Mrs. Kennedy’s moving tribute to her fallen husband. Wearing funeral black and a heavy veil, she knelt and prayed at the side of JFK’s casket. Her daughter Caroline, two days away from her sixth birthday, did her best to imitate her. After a long moment, the former First Lady gracefully stood back up, gathered herself and her children and prepared for the subsequent ceremony.

It was little John-John’s third birthday. At one point, he saluted his late father’s casket. A haunting photo captured that iconic moment for posterity. Kennedy’s casket was placed on a horse-drawn military caisson that proceeded to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The caisson was pulled by several mounted horses and one rider less horse. As the procession passed by the White House, Mrs. Kennedy got out of her limousine and walked behind the caisson. She was joined by RFK and other members of the Kennedy family. Soon after, most of the heads of some 90 nations who had flown into Washington for the state funeral joined her in a moving tribute to the shattered symbol of America’s New Frontier. Some of the men were elderly, but made the 8-block walk in a show of solemn solidarity with Mrs. Kennedy.

After the requiem Mass, the caisson and the limousines proceeded to Arlington National Cemetery for final burial. An estimated one million people lined the procession’s route that had begun at the Capitol Building. After the graveside ceremony on that chilly Monday, the networks reluctantly resumed their normal programming schedule and the rest of us prepared to resume our schedules the next day. President Johnson had proclaimed Monday as a National Day of Mourning and all government offices were closed, along with most of the businesses. In Rugby, all the stores and businesses remained closed so that we could focus and somehow pay our final respects by watching the events of those sobering, historic, honest hours.

In 1966 I visited JFK’s gravesite where an eternal flame burns in his memory. In 1971 I had the somber duty of marching behind a similar horse-drawn caisson at Arlington as a military escort to a casualty of the Vietnam War. On that day, a number of tourists’ cameras were clicking away as if it were all some sort of show put on for their benefit.

The events of the weekend before Thanksgiving, 1963 were what could be called a “reality show”, but one filled with drama, which was certainly not done for our benefit. The curtain had come down on Camelot’s final performance.

Don’t let it be forgot

That once there was a spot,

For one brief, shining moment

That was known as Camelot.

Bill grew up in Rugby, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and resides in Orlando, FL where he is a correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel covering high school sports. His heart will always be with the Heart of America.

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