On November 22, 1963, I was on an airplane headed to Salt Lake City for Roller Derby

I wasn’t happy about, but I had sold a five-day series of games to a promoter.

Our season in the Bay Area was from April through September. Our live televised games were taped over that time to be shipped to our expanding network across the US. And our tour through the Midwest and East was scheduled for January through April.

Money was always a problem. The only way you can keep a six-team league was to provide some pay, even if it was half in the off season. So in the middle of our hiatus when I received an offer for a guarantee and a participation of the “gate”, I accepted. It was the week before Thanksgiving and the thought of spending five days in Salt Lake City at that time was not appealing to me at all, but it was necessary.

So I boarded a United Airlines aircraft in Oakland that stopped in Reno and got aboard. As we were about to take off from Reno, the pilot made an announcement: “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. The extent of his injuries are unknown at this time. We will have more information when we reach Salt Lake City.”

I had an unimaginable feeling of horror. This President, the first born in the 20th century, America’s symbol of the new society, shot.

When we arrived in Salt Lake we were given the word that the President had been killed. I immediately went to a payphone and called the promoter. He had heard the news, but when I told him I wanted to cancel the run he coldly told me no: He had paid half of the guarantee ahead, he would pay the other half when I saw him, and he had all the expenses, advertising, etc and was not about to cancel. And if I tried, he would get his buddy the sheriff to come in and impound our track, etc.

I went to my motel, shaved and cleaned up, and got ready to meet the skaters and the promoter. I remember vividly the television on, Walter Cronkite crying, the whole thing unfolding before me live. I shaved with tears streaming down my face, just sick to my stomach.

The players assumed we would cancel; I had to inform them otherwise. In essence the promoter had us, including their payroll. We all went to the arena (a small one, I don’t remember) and skated the worst game possible before the smallest crowd imaginable.

I left Hal Janowitz in charge, headed back to the motel and reserved the first flight out the next morning (we were obligated to play through Sunday). obviously the crowds were terrible, and we had no additional revenue….the whole thing was wrong.

For the next three days I was glued to the television set, watching the whole reality, almost scripted, unfold. The Dallas policeman killed by Oswald, his capture, the crazy law scene around the police department and more. And watching live as they brought Oswald to the station, the police in their cowboy hats and lackadaisical security, and Jack Ruby walking up and shooting Oswald…..live for your viewing pleasure, folks.

And it just rolled on; Jackie and now President Johnson in Washington……Dallas……the funeral cortege with the horse drawn funeral wagon rolling by the White House and tiny little John John saluting the flag in front as it rolled by…..just try to picture everyone’s feelings.

And for me, who has lived through Roosevelt, Truman and the atom bomb, Eisenhower (whom I voted for) and shaking John Kennedy’s hand as he campaigned in Oakland, this was signaling the start of a terrible time for America.

Although Johnson fooled us all, especially carrying forth the agenda that Kennedy had started, including the passage of Civil Rights with the help of Republican Senator Dirksen of Illinois (imagine that today!), but Vietnam destroyed his Presidency and he decided not to run for another term.

So we have had all the subsequent assassinations, a crook in the White House, a actor who knew how to make great speeches and convinced everyone that greed is good; and unnecessary wars, leaders who don’t care about the populace and more. Ironically, Kennedy’s family was so wealthy, but he was a shining example of what we needed at that time. What if he had lived through the second term till 1968?

I have seen the good and the bad. You can read about it all you want, but I was there, and my life has never stopped being affected by it. That is what you should get out of this memory of a horrible day 50 years ago.

5 comments on “On November 22, 1963, I was on an airplane headed to Salt Lake City for Roller Derby

  1. I love expweiencing this history thru you, Jerry! Can the true impact even be revealed in the passage of history!? You give it such an essence that makes it so attainable now! I savor every passage!
    I was honored to visit the private photographer of Pres. Eisenhower on a photo safari in high school on a field trip. We seen pics he took thru the lens that no human should ever have to speculate. War. Roller Derby is the saving grace again. For those who bother to show.

    • sometimes history even crosses over; when I was on the Roller Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan’s small tour, the tour photographer was Ken Regan, who also photographed much of the Kennedy family as well as the Beatles and others…..a great guy; we were involved in a number of fun incidents….he died of cancer too young.

  2. Jerry … a very painful and poignant remembrance. I was 15 … in my high school glee club class (interestingly, also in Salt Lake City, I might add), when the news was broadcast over the intercom. I knew it was very very big, but amorphous and incomprehensible to me. I could not even begin to grasp the enormity of it for a couple of years, when it all came fully clear to me.

  3. I go way back – Chiefs, Red Devils, Chicago Westerners, Jolters skating outdoors for a month in Miami in the late 40’s. My Mother knew the General Manager who stayed at the hotel where she was the chief telephone operator. He arranged to get me and my sister to go to all the games free during that season.. Of course we were hooked. What a time that was. Many years later I sought you out at MSG to say hello and thanks.. So my heart has always been touched by the fact that one always got their money’s worth by the wonderful skaters.

    I was thrilled by the great obit for Joan Weston by Frank DeFord in the NY Times because it caught the true essence of Derby. And I am grateful to Gary Powers for his Hall of Fame for reminding me of those great skaters by honoring their memory.

    And the one and only Loretta Behrens for her friendship and her desire to do right by Roller Derby for those who loved of the game

    Thank you for this remembrance of 11-22. Fascinating.

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