Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reflections on Jack Ruby

Depending upon who you read, Jack Ruby was a petty strip-club gangster or an important mobster-friend of Sam Giancana.

NOTE: Last year at this time, I posted this and I've gotten a fair number of hits on it ever since. I am running it again, since it accurately captures my nostalgic feelings/memories at the end of every November. Comments welcome on both posts.


It was November 24, 1963.

I remember that I was sitting on a footstool, my nose approximately 8 inches from my family's black-and-white TV set. If I got too close, I couldn't see anything, but I was intent on getting just as close as I could. I wanted to see it all.

It was Sunday morning, and I remember well the hubbub of the adults in the kitchen. I was the only one in the small dining room that served as our TV room. I heard the TV-news announcer say that Lee Oswald was going to be transferred in an armored vehicle. I didn't know what an armored vehicle was, but it sounded awesome. And yet... that little guy? As a six-year-old, I was surprised that such a skinny little guy could be the villain of the hour. I had expected the president's assassin to look something like Brutus, the dastardly evil man of the Popeye cartoons... or at least, he should bear some resemblance to Lex Luthor. This skinny, slight, soft-spoken fellow who calmly denied being near Dealey Plaza? Well, he was just spooky, that's all. They kept calling him a Marxist and a communist, words I didn't yet understand but knew meant that he was a bad person. (I would say the word "communist" in 1963 had the similar gravitas of the word "terrorist" in 2009.) I was enthralled by the constant TV-coverage, the switching back and forth from Dallas to Washington... to our new president, Lyndon Johnson and then back to the basement of Dallas city jail. It was as dazzling as space travel.

Middle-American culture had changed utterly and completely in only two days.

For one thing, the TV had not always been on before. You turned on the TV to watch something, and when it was over, you turned it off. Sometimes you left it on, but usually not. Among the working classes, it was not unusual for some families not to own a TV at all. There were often anti-TV holdouts in these families; cantankerous, old-school types who thought TV was all rubbish and probably unchristian. But after this weekend? This archaic viewpoint was consigned to the dustbin of history. Back in my first-grade class, I would hear about parents who had rushed out to buy a TV at long last. They simply could not bear to be left out.

The TV had been turned on, and stayed on. It was on when I got home from school, dismissed early due to the tragedy, and it was on throughout the funeral. And it stayed on forever after.

And the TV was on as they transferred Lee Oswald to the armored vehicle, or attempted to. There was much talk about security because tensions were running extremely high; there was palpable fury throughout the city of Dallas. When police had forcibly taken Oswald from the theater where they had discovered him, hostile mobs surrounded the police car, and it was said he might have been torn to pieces if the crowd had been able to get their hands on him.

Listening to all this, I was riveted. I remember peering intently as they brought him out, my nose almost right on the screen: There he is!

And then, the inevitable disappointment: such a nonthreatening little dude he was.

I peered and peered and then... bang. Oswald was down.


It was so quick. If not for the firecracker-noise of the gun, I would never have known.

"They shot him!" I shouted, "They shot Oswald! They shot him!"

The adults stampeded as one entity, from the kitchen to the small dining room where I was. My mother, grandparents, some other relatives I have since forgotten... possibly my cousin Charlene.

"I SAW it!" I was shouting, "I SAW IT!"

SSSSSSSssssssshhhhhhhh! Everyone was shushing me. Had I really seen that? The adults' eyes were collectively popping. I felt pretty important for being the one to see it.

"He must be really mad about the president, huh?" I asked.

Nobody answered. They kept shushing me, as obviously-shaken news-announcers talked about what they had just witnessed.

And then, the adults were all looking at each other, that way adults did when they were thinking things that they would not share with children.

Finally, my grandfather said, in what I have come to call his Christian Science Wisdom voice: "Well, that really stinks."

My mother's eyes were wide, wide, wide.

My grandfather shook his head and said "Stinks!" again, rather emphatically. My mother nodded gravely back at him.

I didn't know what he meant then.

The TV-announcers were saying his name: Jack Ruby. The man's name was Jack Ruby.


Like millions of Americans that day, I saw a murder on live television. Because the murder was widely perceived as an act of justice, nobody worried about the ill effects on all of us children who saw it. And later, many years and decades later, when we began to doubt that what we saw was justice and instead wondered if it had been the silencing of a co-conspirator... nobody worried about the erosion of our morality and the consequential development of our cynicism.

But I trace it all back to that day, the day in the basement of the Dallas city jail.

They ask us, do you remember where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? But I always ask, instead: What did you think when his accused murderer was pronounced dead? Because the silencing began then, the questions asked that will forever remain unanswered. (As Norman Mailer once explained the existence of the angry kids of the 60s: They hated the authority because the authority had lied.)

My grandfather was right. It certainly did stink. And the stench covered everything.

The lies of the powerful were uncovered and exposed before us, that morning in the basement of the Dallas city jail.

Some of us never forgot.


sheila said...

I wasn't born yet on the shooting of JFK. My mom though, often describes her every move that day.
I saw something on our local news last night, they are hyping a report from two local secret service agents 'coming clean' and telling the 'real story' about who shot JFK. Not sure if it's hype or if they'll really send a jolt.

Oswald didn't do it. One day it'll come out. Just not in our lifetime. Everyone has to be dead first who lived through it.

WONDERFULLY written post, very engaging!

Zucchini Breath said...

Very thoughtful. I was born in 67 so I get left out of the 'where were you' clique on this one.
It's nice to hear a different perspective that what usually gets passed around, thanks


I actually had met Jack Ruby. My sister knew a couple of the dancers as they came in the deli where she worked and she went there a few times(maybe more who knows with my sister) and she met Jack Ruby. So when I came to town to spend a few week with her, she (22) decided to take her 14 year old sister to the his place and show me off..(at 14 I looked older than her and my boobs were bigger) he came running over the minute we walked in the door, I thought we were busted and I was going to be in trouble...he wanted to know if I needed a job...my sister laughed and said she's only 14 Jack, and he said come back when your 18 and walked off..who knew...6 years later I'd see him again..
I still don't believe it was a single gunman, and think there was a cover up from second 1

JoJo said...

I wish I had a memory to share, but alas, I was born 1 year and 4 days later. But there was the evidence of the day Kennedy was shot in my childhood home for many years. My mom had just started to paint a metal radiator when she got the call to turn on the TV. She never finished painting it. There was only one paint stroke on it, placed right before she abandoned the task for the TV.

I would really, really love to know what really happened. I grew up in 'Kennedy country' and it was widely thought it was the mob sending a message to Bobby Kennedy. I mean, they were influential in getting JFK elected, and then Bobby goes after the mob after he's made Attorney General. Everyone knows the mob doesn't whack you, they'll whack your family.

Interesting stuff though; lots of theories, only one truth. Wonder if we'll ever find out....

word verif: boonder

Sarah said...

What a wonderfully, vibrantly written memory! I wasn't born yet, and honestly the topic has been discussed so much that I rarely read past the first graf of anything about related to the assassination, but this kept me engaged to the end. Very nice!

Jon said...

Pretty close to my own memories of that day and the role TV played in our lives.
From what I've been able to find out, Ruby had been a major player in the Midwest teamsters. He was Hoffa's man in Chicago when Hoffa first ran for international president. I think he had some part in the looting of the Teamster's central states pension fund. I think Bobby Kennedy even had something to say about Jack Ruby in his book on the McLellan commission investigation of organized crime in the labor movement. This is just my memory from reading I did more than 30 years ago.
I used to be quite a student of labor history. I was surprised when Ruby's name came up a couple of times in connection with Midwest labor politics.