Stationed at Ft. Gordon, Ga., former U.S. Army draftee Al Bruce remembers the day JFK died

Everyone who was more than five years old 54 years ago today, Nov. 22, 1963, remembers that afternoon when they first heard that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

This writer was a draftee at Fort Gordon, Ga., learning the intricacies of repairing aviation electronic equipment at the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps School.

The U.S. Army in its finite wisdom had decided that this drafted 23-year-old had the requisite skills to become a 284.1, Army nomenclature more than half a century ago for an aviation electronic equipment repairman. That wasn’t a sexist title. Few women half a century ago wore Army green and none graced the wooden barracks that had stood at Ft. Gordon since the early years of World War II.

This writer was a class anomaly, a draftee selected for a four-month-long school that would mean I would serve only 18 months in my MOS, GI shorthand for military occupational specialty.

Most classmates were enlistees, soldiers who had military obligations of at least three years, terms that would ensure the Army would get a suitable return on its investment for two months of basic training and four months of Advanced Individual Training. Eighteen months seemed a slim return for someone with a college degree emblematic of a curriculum full of such un-scientific courses as creative writing 111 and 112 plus classes about the American Civil War, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.

Hardly progenitors of electrons, sound waves and air-to-ground radio transmissions.

The rich irony went beyond that simple description: A fellow basic trainee who slogged with this writer through Ft. Dix, N.J. basic training, was an electrical engineering graduate of the same university, Cornell. He was sent to Ft. Benjamin Harrison to learn about writing Army news releases and articles.

My career when that dreaded invitation from Uncle Sam arrived was as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle.

We Cornell classmates always assumed that somehow our training orders were confused in the Army’s bureaucracy: Drafted civilian electrical engineer is sent to the Army newspaper writing school while the civilian newspaper reporter would become an Army electrical engineering tech.

For whatever passed for common sense in the 1963 U.S. Army, I was testing audio reception that long-ago afternoon when I first heard the beginning on CBS of the horrible story that our commander in chief had been injured in a Dallas motorcade.

I urged classmates to turn to the audio frequency with adamant calmness, if such an oxymoron exists. As the fledgling avionics repairmen learned of the ominous news, that became frighteningly final within an hour, student giggling and horseplay were transformed into serious hypnotic understanding that a tragedy had occurred in Dallas.

The final notification came from Walter Cronkite, the CBS equivalent of an electronic deity. My mind for at least a few seconds imagined I was in the Democrat and Chronicle newsroom in Rochester where the Associated Press signal for major stories, a fusillade of loud bells clanged uninterrupted for long minutes.

The 10 neo-technicians learned little about electronics wizardry that afternoon but sat transfixed with news of the third death of a U.S. president since the founding fathers had created the executive branch.

Cronkite took off his dark horn-rimed glasses and wept silently as he told the world that our president, my commander-in-chief, was dead.

Even the most banal instruction as we marched from class to our barracks…“Guide to the right of the deep sand”… elicited no smart-alecky remarks that dark late afternoon.

Each of us rushed to the company orderly room where a television set was turned to CBS and non-stop coverage of the Dallas horror.

A CBS reporter told the world more about Lee Harvey Oswald and his murderous afternoon. A Signal School classmate, Ron Hollobaugh, who had been a civilian Dallas police officer before his enlistment, said he knew J. D. Tippit, the officer Oswald killed after escaping from Dealey Plaza.

The traditional company late afternoon gathering included worsening information. Our company commanding officer, a first lieutenant, warned us “not to go into Augusta” that evening because some people probably assumed the military was somehow involved in the murder and “would be after us.”

We discussed that pronouncement when returning from the chow hall that evening. Nobody with whom I have ever discussed the issue has provided even hazy insight from whence that accusation sprang.

The next day was a misty Saturday where we learned another Army truism: If you gotta march in your dress greens, the day will be rainy.

We did and it was.

But the mind picture of more than 12,000 men marching that morning over slightly rolling turf sticks in my mind with the shuffling sounds and misty fragrance of long ago.

We returned to our barracks and quickly cleaned sand-speckled cheap Army shoes and folded our Class As, the Army equivalent of a suit, as neatly as possible and returned to history in the making on the old black-and-white company television set.

On Sunday, the next day, classmate and Texan T.J.Poole shouted “Brucie, git in here. Somebody just shot Oswald.”

Ex-cop Hollobaugh also knew Jack Ruby and characterized him as the owner of a seedy some would say sleazy Dallas lounge.

My parents mailed a column from the typewriter of John Kenny, a graying Democrat and Chronicle writer whose prose was graceful, even when the subject was the murder of a president. The piece won several awards but when I returned to city room after release from the Army months later, we exchanged pleasantries until I mentioned his praise-worthy column. John turned away at the proffered words of praise and returned, blinking to his desk.

That was the impact of the death of an Irishman on a writer who was proud of his Irish roots.

We never spoke again of the column or John Fitzgerald Kennedy, late the 35th president of the United States.

Yet every Nov.22 my mind returns to Ft. Gordon and that horrid weekend. Since the first commemoration and every anniversary since then, I still see Cronkite’s worn and weeping face in black and white, just as clearly was I saw them Nov. 22, 1963, 54 years ago today.

And the youthful faces around that television are as clear as if Dealey Plaza suddenly exploded into world consciousness yesterday. The television images are just as clear and sad now as if I had seen the black-and-white television story in the Ft. Gordon Signal School orderly room yesterday instead of too close to 60 years ago.