I was a young reporter in San Luis Obispo in November 1963. I and several other 20-somethings, all a little too far from our family homes to leave for Thanksgiving, planned to celebrate together.
I provided the location. Lynn, the Family Page editor, would cook the turkey. Rose, who had just been accepted by the Peace Corps, and other volunteers brought various dishes. Gil Bailey, who went on to the San Jose Mercury News and later the Washington Post, would bring the booze.
John Kennedy, our young, energetic, smart, liberal president who was our idol, would be naturally a topic of conversation. He was so different from the old fuddy-duddies of the 1950s.
But first there was work to do. Thursday evening before Thanksgiving I was covering a Paso Robles Planning Commission meeting. Afterward, I drove the 40 miles to the Telegram-Tribune in SLO and wrote the story, getting home to Los Osos around midnight.
At about 3 a.m., the phone rang. The Paso Robles Police Department informed me that the historic Hot Spring Hotel in the middle of town was on fire. Noting it would take me about 45 minutes to get there, I said it would probably be out by then. "Nope, It'll just be going good," he said.
So I went.
It was a foggy, freezing cold night but I shot several rolls of photos, fingers warmed by numerous cups of hot chocolate from some of the scores of people who were there to watch the spectacle and mourn the loss. Half the town must have been there.
At dawn, I drove into the office, turned in my film and wrote the story, finishing just before our 10:30 a.m. deadline. I was shown the front page dummy with my long story and two pictures taking up a large chunk of the page. A nice little scoop.
I was about to leave when the photographer ran out of his darkroom, saying the radio he kept there had reported the president had been shot in Dallas. About then, the three bells signifying a bulletin went off on the UPI Teletype. And not long after, the "flash" bells -- five bells, used only for the most urgent news -- announced the president was dead.
Nobody left the office. The front page was torn apart several times as the news developed. The fire story ended up as a few paragraphs and no pictures in the inside.
For the next few days, a TV set was installed in the newsroom. We watched the parade past the casket lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, and the funeral parade. John-John saluting. The drums. The horse with the empty saddle, boots backward in the stirrups. The scores of heads of state from all over the world marching behind the horse-drawn caisson, Charles de Gaulle, notable for his height.
Afterward, nothing, numbness. Nothing to look forward to but Thanksgiving three days away.
Us singles got together as planned. The meal was excellent, but it wasn't the boisterous holiday we had hoped for. We talked a lot about Kennedy, about what he meant for America, what he had let us dream.
Our enthusiasm may seem naive today, considering all that has become known since. But we were coming off a decade where the country was signified by "The Ugly American," the novel by Eugene Burdick that seemed to represent the world's image of unlikable Americans. Here we had youth, energy, a reaching out to the world -- and to Americans -- that we had not seen for some time. So much seemed so possible.
Later, criticism was rampant, chipping away at his image. Kennedy's judgment on the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and other issues was questioned. A polite press had helped hide his personal peccadilloes. Would it have made a difference if we had known? Probably not at the time. After all, he had plenty of years left to learn from his mistakes and to accomplish so much more.
It helped us to be together that Thanksgiving, but the holiday would forever symbolize sadness. We could only wonder -- and still do -- at what might have been.