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Fifty Years

This fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination has special meaning for me. It was a gloomy Friday afternoon on November 22, 1963. It was my last day at my junior high school in Barrington, NJ. My parents had sold the house where I grew up for $13,500. My father Thomas F. Campbell, Sr. had built it himself. In the next week we would be driving across the country to live in San Diego where my father had dreams of better employment as a construction worker. The warm, sunny climate of San Diego meant for him more days of work, uninterrupted by bad weather. For me, it meant realizing my dream of visiting Disneyland.

Southern California and Disneyland were on my mind as I went to my last class of the day, but that changed when I walked into the classroom and heard that the President might have been been shot. There was much confusion over what had really happened. Someone in the office switched on the intercom system. Woodland Junior High was a fairly new building when I attended and featured an intercom with speakers in every classroom. We all fell into a hush as news from CBS radio came over the speaker. It was not long before we heard Walter Cronkite confirm our worst fears that President Kennedy was dead. We were so stunned we didn’t know what to say, but I had to go through the process of finishing that last day of school by turning in my textbooks and picking up the paperwork that would get me enrolled in a new school on the other side of the country.

I remember the following weekend as being so surreal. The weather was cold and cloudy with periods of rain. If we turned on the radio, we would hear only very solemn classical music. On television, there was nonstop news coverage of the event. These were the background sounds as my family packed and prepared for our move. The television was on that Sunday when Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald. I would like to say I was among the people who saw this live event, but my attention was focused on my packing. By the time I was able to look at the screen, Ruby was already being taken away and Oswald was being carried to an ambulance. Even watching a replay, I could not see a gun or anyone being shot.

The trip took about a week. My parents decided that they would drive the family station wagon down the coast through the deep south and then west to San Diego. Their reason for taking this route was to avoid possible bad weather in the midwest. They had hired a professional moving company to take our furniture to California. We drove all day and stayed at motels at night. It was my first time outside of the northeast and my first venture into the segregated south. That experience further awakened my conscience to the cause of civil rights, especially seeing the separate restrooms for blacks and whites. Traveling through the south, I felt like I was in a different country. This can’t be my United States, I thought to myself. Sadly, it was.

I experienced my first ferry ride when we got the Chesapeake Bay. A bridge and tunnel system was under construction, but was not ready when we got there to cross. As we waited for our ferry, my older brother Joe bought a copy of his favorite science magazine. I was excited that the issue had a picture of Walt Disney on the cover. Inside that issue, we saw a disturbing report that Southern California was way overdue for a major earthquake along the San Andreas fault. What was I getting myself into? I thought to myself. Would I even survive long enough to get to Disneyland? Oh, well. Too late to turn back now.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on the road. We had turkey dinner at a restaurant near our motel. The next day was my father’s birthday. For us, it was just another driving day. I don’t remember any special celebration. It was now one week after the assassination.

Turning west in the northern part of Florida, we spent a night in Tallahassee. After driving through Alabama and Mississippi, our next major stop was New Orleans. The motel where we stayed was in an industrial part of town. I just remember seeing railroad yards and freight trains. It didn’t look like the French Quarter. My parents were not impressed with New Orleans either.

Then we entered Texas where we would spend the next two days. By this time, we ended up on Route 80 that would take us all the way to the Pacific Coast. I did not know that Route 80 would take us right through Dallas. I am not sure my parents knew either. At least they did not share that with their four children. When we got to Dallas, I asked them if we could find the place Kennedy was shot, but they refused, saying that we needed to keep driving. As it turned out, we didn’t need to find Dealey Plaza. It found us.

Suddenly discovering we were traveling on the same street that Kennedy’s motorcade traveled less that two weeks before, we begged our parents to stop. They refused and kept on driving. I held my Brownie camera to the side window and took a photo of the grassy knoll that was still covered by wreaths. Of course, the picture that developed was so blurry that I eventually threw it away.

It was early December when we arrived in San Diego. It was nothing like New Jersey. It was more like a tropical island. There was a strong Hawaiian influence in the architecture, and it was the first time that I saw surfers. The regional shopping mall in Mission Valley was not enclosed like the ones I knew in New Jersey. People strolled along the open walkways and plazas in their shirtsleeves. It was December. I knew that a San Diego Christmas would be radically different from the ones I had experienced before.

When my parents bought a house in Pacific Beach, they paid $19,000. They were shocked to find real estate more expensive than South Jersey. My mother was pregnant during our trip west. She gave birth to my younger brother John in February at the old Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. Her obstetrician was a man name Graves who did not drive a car, but traveled everywhere by bicycle. Around this time, Beatlemania was starting to take over the radio airwaves. The Kennedy assassination was beginning to fade in our memories, and, yes, I eventually got that trip to Disneyland.

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November 24, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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