The JFK Assassination: An American View from Europe

               Our country had seemed to go insane, and we were helpless bystanders disconnected by the width of an ocean.

Front pages of 7 British daily newspapers in London.  AP Photo/File

Front pages of 7 British daily newspapers in London. AP Photo/File

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.

Virginia Water Railway Station

Virginia Water Railway 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.

JFK in Dallas

JFK in Dallas

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.”

JFK lies in repose

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.

JFK caissons

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.

Bob and Monty many years later.

Bob and Monty many years later.

Monty (l) and Bob present a copy of New Writing from Virginia to UVA President Edgar Shannon in 1963 prior to sailing for Europe.

Monty (l) and Bob present a copy of New Writing from Virginia to UVA President Edgar Shannon in 1963 prior to sailing for Europe.

4 Comments

Filed under Famous People, Memoirs, Writing

4 responses to “The JFK Assassination: An American View from Europe

  1. W, Wynne Zaugg

    Changed the course of history. Wonder if some things might have been smother. Thank you, Sir Monty. Hi to your butler!

  2. Rita Joynes Ramsay

    While you were in Europe, I (your sister) was a 15-year-old just starting high school, not wholly clear of the implications of the announcement that came across the school loud speaker that declared that our President had been shot. I really don’t remember how I was feeling in that moment, but I suspect it was a little fear at how such a thing could happen and what it would all mean.
    One of my friends at the time, Dana Howell, was the daughter of a Naval officer who invited us to accompany him to Washington for the funeral activities. I remember that I felt compelled to go and was so glad for the opportunity to be present and try to bring understanding for myself around this tragedy.
    I don’t remember where we stood during the funeral procession along the streets of Washington, but I remember being able to look down and see Mrs. Kennedy as she walked behind the caisson. There was such sadness in the air. As a 15-year-old, I was most drawn to another person walking along the route, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, a man, it seemed, only 5 feet tall, laden with medals covering his whole dress uniform. As young girls, we found his attire quite funny and referred to it as his “Haile Selassie Suit.”
    What touched me the most, was the riderless horse, the symbol of the fallen, with boot backwards in the stirrup. There were tears as we watched the procession and began to understand the magnitude of what had happened.
    We then moved on to Arlington National Cemetery, where we were witness to the final moments of the day as the family lit the eternal flame, taps were played, and guns roared in grief.
    I remember standing among the other graves on a hill overlooking the Kennedy site and wanting everyone to be quiet. Instead, there were children playing around and laughing and, I felt, being disrespectful in a moment that required quiet and reflection and solemnity.
    I don’t remember anything beyond that moment….where we went after that, when we got home. My memory is forever stopped at that moment in Arlington when taps were played and the world stood still for just a minute in collective grief for a fallen President and the possibility that he represented.
    Thank you, Brother, for a chance to share my memory.

  3. Marilyn Outerbridge

    Not only has Monty’s account been a meaningful and timely article to me, your account of attending the funeral has touched my heart as though I had been there myself. Thank you for sharing your memory. The ability to express so much through the written word obviously runs in the family!

  4. jackie kopasakis

    Great story. I had ordered lunch in the Morningside Restaurant on Plume Street, Norfolk. On the radio were stories made up about crazy stuff at that time. When I heard the report of the President having been killed, I could not believe it. Thought it was just another of the stories. Left and went back to the office and told my boss what “I thought I had heard. He found a radio and heard the same thing. We still weren’t sure it was real.

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