Come Friday next, it will be the 50th anniversary of the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Half a century. That's what we've had to get accustomed to this idea. And so much has been written, so much thought given to the event and the consequences that one would think that everything there is to say has been said.
But after all this time, after all the "Where were you whens?" and "What I was doing when I heards," we need to remember that there are two generations who have no such memories, only questions. Those questions reflect an essential lesson of history, which is — in Shakespeare's words — "What's past is prologue."
Some of what we have become as a society and a nation began that morning in Dallas. We remember. We listen to those who remember. And we learn.
If you are John Purroy, your memories are typed in purple ink on scraps of yellow paper that your wife, Teresa de la O, found in a manila folder that had spent several years in a storage unit.
John, a retired reporter and editor for The Press Democrat, was working the wire desk that morning. His mementoes are a few of the scores of teletypes received from the wire services that day. The most dramatic among them has just three words:
" — — FLASH
Beside it, written in pencil, in an editor's scrawl, the letter B — for bulletin, the "hold-everything" term that set the bells ringing on the Teletype machines.
Diane Morgan, then a young reporter, remembers Purroy's ashen look. She also recalls that the news editor, Dick Torkelson, took the paper from his hand and said, "Bulletin, hell! We've gotta hold the press!"
It was just the first of many press stoppages that day. The PD was an afternoon paper then and the front page already was in type when the first "SHOTS FIRED" message came through. It was replated many times before the day was done.
These were "hot lead" times. Purroy's bulletin would be handed to a Linotype machine operator who would produce lines of type to be placed by hand in a page frame that was still two full steps from the press.<NO1><NO>
As the terrible news came in small servings, and the photos — of Jackie cradling her wounded husband's head, of the Secret Service agent climbing on the back of the car, of the blood-stained pink dress, of Oswald's arrest, of the grim swearing-in ceremony aboard the plane — the PD staff, like journalists everywhere, struggled to get the next "EXTRA" on the street.
Hearing the stories today, in this age of Twitter and tweets, they sound almost medieval.<NO1><NO> It's not only the way today's news is broadcast, but in other, subtler ways, which young people can't comprehend and even some older ones have forgotten — the clack of typewriters, that persistent bell in the wire room that announced the next news flash, the astonishingly primitive methods. One example is found in a memoir Sheri Graves has written about that day. Sheri, a reporter for the PD who retired in 2004, was a 19-year-old "copy boy" whose assigned task, when the first bulletins appeared, was to go next door to Montgomery Wards (where the parking lot is today just south of The Press Democrat)<NO1><NO> to watch television and use the furniture department telephone to call the newsroom and tell the editors what she saw. There were no TVs in newsrooms. It had never occurred to anyone that it was necessary.