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Work of Art — Back then, it was as if . . .

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By Art Trujillo

It was as if the President had been shot and killed in downtown Gallup. The commotion, the panic, the floods of tears, the anger and confusion must have rained on every community in the nation. Yes, it was as if . . .

Let me explain:

Virtually every living U.S. senior citizen can recall precisely where each was and what each was doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. The just-published Friday edition of the Optic, for example, compiled reactions from people who remember the event clearly.

A local, Bruce Wertz, furnished us his copy of the Optic’s front page for that date.

Let me explain what it was like in 1963, in the pre-Google, pre-Facebook, pre-cell phone, pre-computer era when things moved much slower. One of my duties was to cover the McKinley County courthouse. I’d sit in on trials, pick up daily records such as divorces, marriage licenses, liens and lawsuits and whatever else went on in the county seat.

That morning, the then-county clerk asked if I’d heard of the shooting. “What shooting?” I asked. “Well, haven’t you heard the news? Somebody shot the president.” I suspect he expected me to fill him in.

I ran back to the newspaper, the Gallup Independent. By then, the dinging of five bells on the teletype machine — used only for big stories, and often called the Second Coming Alert — had begun. Several of us crowded around the machine, which acted like an operator-less typewriter, with its accompanying tape-perforator feature.     

The rapidly changing bits of information at first reported that a Catholic priest had declared John F. Kennedy dead. There was some suspicion as to authenticity of the report. Minutes later, a doctor confirmed the death. The Teletype machines most newspapers used contained both the tape-perforating feature and a monitor readable by all.

Years later, in a chat on an overnight bus, from Columbia, Mo., I visited with a man who said he had been working for a newspaper the same day, Nov. 22, 1963, and had been able to make off with the teletype copy of the assassination. I recall his saying something like, “It became a very marketable commodity, but nobody’s been able to match the amount I’m asking. You interested?”

He was hoping some day to strike it rich, and yet he’s riding a Greyhound? Well, so was I. But I had an excuse: I was a struggling student. I believe trying to market something like that is tantamount to the practice of hoping for a tragedy.

During Katrina, for example, some people would buy a case of dollar flashlights and peddle them to the victims for $10.
In the newsroom in Gallup that day, there were four newsroom employees trying to meet our early-afternoon deadline.

We published every day except Saturday, so letting the story slide until Sunday would never have worked: it occurred on a Friday; spot coverage by Sunday would have been too late.

At the same time, the Independent became Information Central, as our receptionist fielded numerous calls from people simply wanting verification. Our own commotion and confusion was palpable. I’d become flustered in my unsuccessful attempts to get the boss to “do it this way.” So I left the building, walking fast down Coal Avenue, trying to clear my head.

A man who recognized me asked if I could write an editorial supporting him. It turned out his place of work closed on the news of Kennedy’s death, and he was told he wouldn’t get paid for the four hours off the job.

I returned to the newsroom, asking the mechanical superintendent what was the largest size font (Second Coming Font) we had, and would he mind laying out a few sample banner headlines. The backshop boss snapped back, “The large type is only for major stories.” Well, it wasn’t his job to call the shots, and I won that tug-of-war. But that experience convinced me that not everyone was grieving that day.

Black-and-white TV was the norm in that pre-flat-screen-color-TV era. One of the stores downtown, promoting Emerson TVs, turned on a half-dozen of them, and soon crowds gathered to watch the events.

Had there ever before been three-day coverage, in which millions witnessed the shooting and, a few days later, saw Jack Ruby wriggle his way through a porous police line to fire a fatal bullet into Lee Harvey Oswald?

In the moments when people huddled around storefronts  — the way they used to in the movies — I wondered whether some of the watchers had their own TV sets at home. I believed then and do now that the “togetherness factor” kicked in: People don’t want to be alone; they want someone to talk to, even if the exchange is only “Isn’t it terrible?” and “Yes it is.”

Back at the Independent for the second time I realized that in a few minutes, the press was scheduled to run in order to meet train and bus schedules. I felt relieved that somehow my co-workers hadn’t broken into fistfights, what with their and my bumping into one another or insisting that we knew best how to run the show.

It’s strange how events like this change people, leaving such indelible marks. The paper at the time was a member of The Associated Press, which later published a photo book, “The Torch is Passed,” all about Kennedy’s term in office, up until the day he died. I gave my parents a copy of the book, which they kept forever.

When I moved back to Las Vegas, to finish college, I lived with Mom and Dad for a year.

Often, when I awoke, I’d find Mom seated at the breakfast table, reading the book chapter by chapter; when finished, she’d start all over again. Mom called her reading “therapy.”

I pretended not to notice, but on almost every occasion, I could see, trapped in the corner of her eye, a little tear.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to art@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.