Our country had seemed to go insane, and we were helpless bystanders disconnected by the width of an ocean.
In September of 1963, Bob Friedman and I were newly graduated from the University of Virginia and, after a ten-day cruise on a German coal freighter, began hitchhiking our way across Europe as young writers who had read Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller were expected to do. We had landed in Amsterdam, detoured to Denmark and Sweden, then crossed back into Germany, and spent our prerequisite time in Paris. The next objective was to cross the English Channel and stay some days in London. By the 20th, we had installed ourselves at the London YMCA. Bob remembers that carved into the wall of that YMCA were the words, “Fear is the Beginning of Wisdom.”
While in Copenhagen Bob and I had met an Englishman of our own age, and we were invited to visit him at his parents’ home in Reading and at his workplace gentlemen’s residence club in Virginia Water, a small town near historic Windsor Castle. Kurt was a nurse at Holloway Sanatorium, a palatial hospital for the insane established in 1885. The Virginia Water Railway Station was on the London to Reading line and only 22 miles from London’s Charing Cross Station.
On the late afternoon of November 22nd, Bob and I took the train from London to Virginia Water to be the dinner guests at Kurt’s residence club. We had been to the club once before as it was our hub for exploring the historic sites and dance clubs in Windsor. We arrived at the door of the residence around 7 p.m. We rang the front door bell, and unexpectedly, we were met by the housekeeper who was usually not seen in the evening.
The middle-aged woman housekeeper appeared to us as someone sadly shaken. “I am so sorry,” she said sincerely. We were confused. What was she sorry about? Then her eyes widened in horror, and she asked, “You don’t know, do you?” Before we could respond, she left us standing there outside the door. Her rapid departure surprised us as an unusual breach of English etiquette.
Kurt soon appeared with an apology that went far beyond the greeting faux pas. “I am so sorry,” he began. “Please come in. We are all gathered in the game room watching the television. Your President has been shot.”
There was no hot meal served that night in the residence club. Sandwich fare was available, but the focus was on the television news updates and on alcoholic drinks to calm a world turned upside down. John F. Kennedy, our President, was shot in Dallas, Texas about 12:30 Central Time. In England, the first terrible news flash arrived after 6:30 p.m. London time. Bob and I stayed late with our consoling English friends, and then we walked back to the train station.
On the return trip to London, we wept for the first time in an otherwise empty compartment. The tears had no political or relationship bias. What we felt or imagined about JFK was not as heart stabbing as the isolation that we experienced as Americans abroad. Our country had seemed to go insane, and we were helpless bystanders disconnected by the width of an ocean.
Coming out of Charing Cross Station well before dawn, we encountered newsboys already hawking special-edition newspapers that headlined the Kennedy assassination. We bought a paper, but there were no further revelations in it.
The next day, we took the train to Dover and were going to cross into France. We went into an almost empty pub to wait an hour or two for the ferry. There were only two Englishmen seated there, and they turned to look at us as we entered and took a table. In those days, it seemed that everyone in Europe could tell we were Americans simply by the clothes we wore. As we waited for the half-pints to arrive, one of the Englishmen, in a heavy cockney accent, said (not to us, as his back was turned, but just to the room), “’e was a bloody Christian martyr, ’e was.”
Everywhere we traveled, European flags were at half-mast. And everywhere that we were recognized as Americans, strangers in varying degrees of English expressed sympathy to us as if JFK had been a close family member. By the time we returned to Copenhagen, the state funeral for our dead President was in progress, and Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot dead while in police custody. We saw the massive television coverage of these events years later in replay. As students abroad, we knew only what was reported in the thin expatriate newspaper, The Herald Tribune.
Bob remained in Copenhagen and found a room at one of the student dormitories at the university there. He remembers that the Danish students were glued to the television for days, watching the news about the assassination, the Oswald murder, and the investigations that followed. It appeared to him that the Danish people loved Kennedy and felt in some way that he was going to be the savior in a world deeply divided by a bitter cold war. They were devastated that he was gone.
I migrated to Stockholm but got involved with painters and filmmakers on projects that did not qualify me for my graduate student draft deferment. By October 1964, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and participated in President Johnson’s massive commitment of troops to the Viet Nam War. Earlier in 1964, Bob had gone back to graduate school to pursue an M.F.A. and later became a publisher and published six of my books. We have remained close friends for over 50 years, and our sons and daughters think of us as brothers. I am “Uncle Monty” to Bob’s children. I guess we’ll always remember being together, in a foreign land, on that momentous day in American history.