For our parents’ generation, it was December 7, 1941. For our children, it is September 11, 2001. For those of my generation, it was November 22, 1963, 50 years ago this Friday.
It was the day the world changed. It was the day our nation changed forever. Daniel Moynihan said it best when he said: “We will laugh again but we will never be young again”.
And, those of us above the age of 55, will never forget that day.
For those who were old enough to understand the nuances of politics and society, it was an end to Camelot. The assassination of President Kennedy brought a sudden and abrupt shocking end to the young, smiling Presidential family which had seemed to corner the market on good looks and culture. But, they knew that it was more than that. It was also an end to the youthful, joyous, spring in the step early 1960s which had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of involvement in Vietnam.
For kids like me, 8 years old at the time, it was something simpler. It was the first time many of us saw our parents- and perhaps even more dramatically, our teachers- cry. It was the cancelled parties and games. It was the horror of watching, over and over again, the man who had made our parents and our nation cry killed on live TV. It was seeing the flags at half staff and having to ask why over and over again.
I saw President Kennedy in person a few months before the assassination when he came to Boston College to deliver an address. The motorcade passed one block from our house. The line was two or three deep but someone pushed me right into the front and he waved right at me. I will never forget his smile.
As I got to college, with the memories of the motorcade and of November 1963 buried in the back of my mind, my interest in TV news and journalism in general sparked a fascination in the assassination. I suppose it began in earnest when I heard Mark Lane speak at Brandeis. He was the first to make a name for himself in claiming that there was a conspiracy that was being covered up. He brought all his pictures and his films (but not the Zapruder film to be sure) and it was just what all of us wanted to hear, another thing to be cynical about in the era of Watergate. It was also a great detective story and I wanted to search for clues. And, it brought to the surface those emotions of that weekend, emotions which still felt fresh after all the intervening years.
So, as the years have gone along, I have become even more deeply fascinated with the assassination. I have read countless books, watched all of the TV specials and in 1999, I finally made the trip I had wanted to make for many years, to Dallas, to stand in Dealey plaza and to visit the “6th Floor Museum”.
It was a pilgrimage in every sense of the word. I stayed in a hotel a few blocks away and walked towards the plaza and suddenly and sooner than I expected, I looked up and saw the Texas School Book Depository. I stopped in my tracks and just stood staring, as so many do. I did not expect to cry but I did. It was truly a cathartic experience to stand in that spot and I spoke about the lessons that I learned from that experience at Kol Nidre services the following Yom Kippur. If you’d like a copy of that sermon, just let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send it along.
But, through it all, through all of the studying and the watching and the speculating and through all of the realization of the impact this moment had on our nation and the world, the memories I remember today are the simplest ones: my mother leaning out of the 2nd floor window as I arrived home from school to tell me the news; my father taking me with him to pick up my grandmother who was at the movies and hadn’t heard (it’s interesting that they didn’t stop the movie) and hearing him say to the people gathering around him as he told my grandmother what had happened: “I’m not going to be a God damned town crier”; walking with the members of our synagogue which was the closest house of worship to Kennedy’s birthplace to lay a wreath at his childhood home; and most emotional of all: seeing my mother staring out the window into the darkness and then turning to tell me, with a tear in her eye, that it would all be all right.
I still think that there are some aspects to the story of the assassination that we just don’t know enough about and, maybe 50 years later is a good time to let those questions go. But, honestly, I still find them compelling and still think we may learn something new sometime in the future.
But, that doesn’t seem important today. The most important thing to remember today is that while it was a day that will live in infamy, as happened in 1941 and in 2001, our nation survived, sadder, perhaps wiser or at least less naive, still able to smile but not quite in the same way.
I wonder what the 60s would have been like had John Kennedy lived. I wonder what our world would have been like if we hadn’t cried that weekend. We will never know.
May the memory of John F. Kennedy be for a blessing. May we who remember that weekend continue to move forward while the memories stay with us.