‘Presidents don’t die like that’

By Mike Blackman
Baylor Alumnus

Looking out the window Friday, looking at the chilly gray noontime crowd heading off to lunch, thinking about another noontime 33 years ago.

We were coming back from Snappy Lunch, a little eatery in south Waco near the Baylor campus. You could get a chicken-fried steak for a buck and a quarter, and they would hold the check until your weekly allowance from Mama came.

We were walking toward the dorm, Brooks Hall – at $75 a semester the cheapest on campus. It was there, in the middle of the courtyard, that we encountered A.J., often known as Applejack. He was running south.

It was a little after 12:30.

“They’ve shot the president — they’ve shot the president,” he said. We laughed at Applejack. He always was a prankster, the craziest and wildest kid we knew. Smartest on campus, probably if not surely. He was going to be a doctor, although most of that scholarly brilliance he devoted to testing professors, naive coeds and his souped-up ‘56 Chevy, which he tinkered with endlessly and indelicately raced through narrow campus streets, all hours.

“No, no,” he insisted, “I’m not kidding. They’ve shot Kennedy.” This from a guy that stayed up all night and built a cast for his otherwise healthy arm so he could elude a biology test, which he would ace in a couple of days anyway, no studying. This from a guy who didn’t like his stairwell monitor, and so he torched the guy’s tie rack – in a flamboyant “Z” like Zorro – with a flaming stream of charcoal fluid. He was just a young pre-med who liked to have a good time.

“Get off it,” we told Applejack. “It’s not funny.”

“Not being funny,” he said. That’s when we notice the tears running down his cheeks. Good God, maybe he was serious for once. Suddenly we were scared, sick in the stomach. A.J. started running toward the administration building, past Minglewood Bowl where we played touch football and over Waco Creek where we deposited our empty Coke cups. Never did know where he was running to.

We hastened to the TV room in the first floor of the dorm. Mr. Cronkite was right there, in flickering black and white, trying to comfort, having a hard time. No word on the president yet. Nothing about being dead yet. There was great relief all around.

It was quiet in the little room; about three or four guys were there, watching, all very quiet. The old TV made it hard to see clear, but you could make every word out. They were sorrowful words, mostly, about a young president, and no details on what really happened or who the gunman was, but everybody was hoping for the best. It didn’t seem real. Presidents don’t die like that – not like that, not in Texas, for God’s sake.

Fifteen, 20 minutes later, Mr. Cronkite, he really did seem like an Uncle Walter, made the announcement. The president was dead. Died at 1 p.m. at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Mr. Cronkite was choking up a little. So was everybody in the TV room with the lumpy vinyl chairs that nobody was sitting in. Somebody said oh damn and somebody else stormed out of the room, but mostly we just stood, sad, befuddled, lost 18- and 19-year-olds transfixed by the flickering TV, hoping for a bad dream.

“Damn that Dallas,” somebody said, and everybody seemed to agree, for there had been a lot of anger in Dallas lately. Kennedy wasn’t all that popular right then in Texas, especially Dallas.

It turned cloudy and chilly later that long-ago Friday, and everybody looked for something to do, those who didn’t stick by the TV all afternoon.

There was a pool hall across the street, behind a chili and burger joint. It was a good deal at a dime a game, because house rules allowed the retrieval of your scratch shots in eight ball. Made for long games, got your money’s worth.

We were frequent visitors to this popular establishment. Why, A.J. practically took his meals there. He was very good, too – could even do trick shots like jumping balls and banking them three or four times before making the right one disappear into the appropriate leather pocket. We expected A.J. to show up any time that afternoon, as it would clearly be an Applejack thing to do. Then again, we thought, maybe he was still running across campus, still running south – all the way to Austin, for all we knew.

Nobody was in the pool hall but the old one-armed man who ran it. We played all afternoon, just the two of us. He played by holding the end of the bridge cue high under his stubby arm. Real good, too. Only words said the whole time were “rack’em” a couple of times. We kept playing till nearly dark, and I kept thinking A.J. would stop by, but he never did. The one-armed manager never charged a dime either, all those games, not the whole afternoon.

Mike Blackman is the former Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor, a veteran reporter and editor, and a Baylor alumnus

This article originally ran Nov. 24, 1996 in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. This has been reprinted with permission.