Page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, November 25, 1963. Herb Caen’s column with Psalm 23.
The Longest Weekend
IT IS LESS than 72 hours since the shots rang out in Dallas, yet it seems a lifetime – a lifetime of weeping skies, wet eyes and streets, and emotions that couldn’t always be kept in check. Americans are not, by nature, an emotional people; the San Franciscan prides himself on an unflagging gaiety. And yet, over the endless weekend, San Francisco looked like a city that was only slowly emerging from a terrible bombardment. Downtown, on what would normally have been a bustling Saturday, the people walked slowly, as in shock, their faces pale and drawn, their mood as somber as the dark clothes they wore under the gray skies.
I REMEMBER a famous picture, early in World War II, of a Frenchman crying uncontrollably on the Champs Elysees as the Germans marched into Paris; some people found the photo painfully moving, others criticized him for not keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of the Hun. A grown man doesn’t cry in public: it is part of the American lexicon.
But we are affected variously by various tragedies, and there were grown men crying in San Francisco—the stinging tears of sorrow and frustration. It was already the day after, but it took only a quick reminder to bring the grief back to the surface.
A man walked past the blacked-out corner window of the City of Paris, with its small white card of tribute, and tears rolled down his cheeks. At Sixth and Mission, an old woman in black passed a late newspaper headline, and suddenly sobbed. At the Opera House Saturday night, Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic of London opened the concert with the Star-Spangled Banner, and the sense of loss was felt again; all over the house, tears glistened afresh.
THE LONGEST WEEKEND, that was to have been the Big Game Weekend, and never have perspectives been so suddenly shattered, never have day-to-day values come in for such an excruciating reappraisal. The few people in the downtown bars sat hunched over their drinks, staring down or straight ahead. For once, in the Nation that loves humor, there was none. All at once, a city had stopped smiling.
GRAY SKIES, and the constant gray and black of the TV screen. For the first time, in these unprecedented hours, there was Total Television. You were irresistibly drawn to the tiny screen, as though you expected a miracle. But there were no miracles; only the minor miracle of three networks striving valiantly and with commendable dignity to transmit hour after hour of unfolding tragedy, symbolized by a Flag on a coffin. You were immersed in a fantasy world of honor guards standing at attention in the rain, of endless streams of black limousines, of faces that suddenly became part of your life and to whose familiar voice and manner you clung as though seeking reassurance.
OVER THE WEEKEND that lasted a lifetime—and ended a lifetime—the faces on the screen, switching from Washington to New York to Dallas and back again, over and over, became part of your reality. Their first names joined the family: Chet, Walter, Frank, David, Frank, Martin. The harried face of the Police Chief in Dallas became more familiar to you than that of the man next door. You learned more about Lyndon Baines Johnson than you had ever known, or thought you would care to know. Strange and unknown orchestras and choirs came and went before your swimming eyes. History was traced and retraced—a crash course in the Presidency for millions who too often take too much for granted.
FOR SOME of us, who spend too much time at our jobs and pleasures, and too little exploring the manifestations of greatness, the weekend provided an awakening. As always, it came too late. For those of us who seldom have the opportunity to watch TV, John F. Kennedy became more alive in death than he had been in life. For hour after hour, through the marvel of electronics, we saw the President as though for the first time. His life, compressed onto the small screen, passed before our eyes, and we marveled at his spirit, his warmth, his humor, his brilliance. He seemed vibrantly alive, and his words had a life they never seemed to possess before. We drew strength from him, and, in a way difficult to define, hope. But the lump in the throat refused to be downed.
AS YOU WATCHED the fine young man, the utter senselessness of the tragedy that had snuffed out his life gnawed at you. There was not even a mad nobility in the act, no glimmer of even an insane purpose. This had not been a madman in the mold of John Wilkes Booth, leaping onto the stage of a theater, crying “Sic semper tyrannis!” This was not the inevitable gloomy grandeur from which Greek tragedy is forged, nor the uncontrollable furies of Shakespeare. This had been a warped young man—“a loner,” they called him—who kept saying he didn’t do it. In the confusion of his own life, he symbolized nothing but confusion, and that itself is a symbol of the times.
AND SO TODAY, a Nation already in shock goes into official mourning, and Arlington prepares to receive another fallen soldier. He died without knowing how much he was loved—or by how many.