While Kennedy was being shot, I was at the movies in Addis Ababa. It was Friday night in the Ethiopian capital, and I took in a flick at the Haile Selassie Theater, a mile or so from my house in Kirkos Kebele. The movie was something in black and white with Vivien Leigh, but not one of her classic portrayals, Scarlett or Blanche. It was the kind of grade-B British melodrama that turns up at 9 in the morning on TMC. While I sat through this so-so episode of respectable sludge, barely paying attention, that little schmuck Oswald was murdering the man who got me to Ethiopia in the first place, the best thing that ever happened to me.
Still innocent, I went home to my little pink and green house after the movie and didn’t turn on the radio. I probably slept well. It was a quiet neighborhood, down behind the Guenet Hotel sewer, and I generally crawled under the covers in the 8,000-foot chill and conked out nicely. I got up Saturday morning to do my weekly grocery shopping and still didn’t know. I ambled over to the Italian grocery store. It was crowded, as usual. I decided on some items—meat, bread, cheese?—and as I approached the counter to place my order, an Ethiopian man strode over to me. He was middle-aged and dressed in a jacket and tie, frayed and not recently laundered.
The man barked out, “Sir! Are you an American?”
A little wary, but not really concerned, I said I was.
“Your president is dead!”
The Addis Ababa insane asylum was not far away, and my first thought was that this man was an inmate who was on some kind of release.
I may have said “What?” or something like that, and he said it again. “Your president is dead!”
I didn’t believe it until I looked over at the Italian lady who ran the place. (Was this racist?) I saw the fear and grief in her eyes, and I saw the sorrow she seemed to be feeling for me. She just nodded and said, “Yes.” President Kennedy, she murmured, had been shot dead.
I bought my groceries. First things first, right? I varied my route home a little in order to pass by MAAG headquarters, home of the US Military group that helped train the Ethiopian army. The American flag was at half staff. I had never set foot in this place—we Peace Corps people didn’t normally consort with the types of Americans who walled themselves off and who smoked Marlboros instead of Ketele Werks—but I went right in. An American officer, who looked more angry than distraught, handed me a USIS bulletin that has just come in by teletype. It named Lee Harvey Oswald as Kennedy’s killer, and it said Oswald had just been shot by somebody in the Dallas Police Station. I thought, What the fuck???
A day or two later there was a memorial service at the US Embassy. I have no memory of it. For those of us who really started to become grown-ups with the help of John F. Kennedy, words failed. As they have, to some degree, ever since.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64; HQ Staff 1964-67)) is a journalist and writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. His novel Red White Black and Blue won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Mystery of 2011.