There are many events in our lives that are not merely etched in our own memories but also those of most of the world. But I am sure that the one that most regularly elicits the question, “Where were you when …” is that to which the answer is prefixed by the next words “…. you heard that President Kennedy was assassinated?” In my own case it was the most unlikely place I can think of given my personal circumstances at the time.
On the 22nd of November, 1963, I was working for United Press International in their Paris office where I had recently been taken on as a full time staff journalist after gaining my first degree at the Sorbonne University. I had worked through the first three years of my academic life as a part time sports writer for UPI as they had no one on the Paris staff who knew anything about European Sports and I knew them backwards.I was lucky enough to be available to do a lot of sports reporting for them. It was a dream scenario, being paid a lot of money to do something I would normally have paid for a ticket to watch, and still managing to immerse myself in my favourite subject, mediaeval ecclesiastical history. But to return to the question “Where was I …etc?”
Well I was just taking my seat on the lower deck of a red London Transport bus when the ticket conductor nudged me and said “ ‘ere, mate you ‘erd? President Kennedy’s been killed! No joke, that passenger in front of you just told me!’ The bus was half way along the City Road, the only time in my life that I have ever been in that road. I had been visiting my mother who had just undergone major abdominal surgery and I had only flown in from Paris that afternoon to see her. The bus conductor told me at 7.27 pm, when I was on my way back to the airport. I was back in our flat in Paris by 9.45pm. But the shock did not wear off for several days. Apart from being blown up by a land mine, not too badly hurt, in Vietnam and later being the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in Cambodia, I cannot think of any other events in my life which are still as vividly embedded in my mind. Oddly 9/11, had me riveted to the TV for four hours watching it live, but not taking it in at all. It was just an over the top, badly made horror movie for at least a fortnight before I could fully believe what I had seen. Perhaps it was the immediate acceptance of the truth of the news of JFK’s demise that moved me so much.That really is some tribute to the greatest American whose life coincided with mine. But to everybody who might read this I would love to hear the answer to the question, if it applies, “Where were you when…?”