HEADLINES………..November 22, 2013
(Dan asked me to write Headlines this week, so I’m sending it along with an apology. I thought and thought about some uplifting or funny thing I could tell you about this week, but for those of us of a certain age, this particular day---November 22---brings such a flood of somber memories that the lighter thoughts just can’t rise to the top. I apologize and will promise to do better next time.)
As part of their social studies curriculum, our seventh and eighth graders are studying the 1960s right now, and two of them interviewed me yesterday about those years. (I’ve become a living history exhibit, apparently, similar to Williamsburg.) They asked about fashion and art, about music and hair. They wondered about my involvement in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and presidential campaigns. They asked about the best and the worst moments of that decade. Their questions were good ones and a perfect prelude to this particular day, another November 22.
On November 22 of 1963, I was a ninth grader at Central Catholic High School in Allentown, PA. In the middle of an afternoon algebra class that day, an announcement was made over a staticky intercom telling us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We were encouraged to pray, and time froze for the next half-hour. I recall the tears I couldn’t stop, the whispered prayers of classmates, and the stricken faces of suddenly silent teachers. As I had never hoped for anything before, I hoped for that handsome young president. He’d waved at me on an autumn day three years before when he made a campaign appearance downtown, one that my family attended. His physical presence was beautiful, his energy and exuberance were tangible, and his humor and optimism were contagious. My large Irish-Catholic family of dyed-in-the-wool Democrats quickly adopted him as one of our own. Every one of us worked on his campaign, and on election night, you’d have thought we were celebrating the victory of a favorite uncle. The three years that followed that election transformed me into an inveterate news watcher. I couldn’t get enough of our new president, and I couldn’t stop watching as Washington suddenly became washed in vibrant colors after the grays of the 1950s. Overnight, the White House was transformed into a place full of music and art, beauty and elegance; and we were full of dreams of serving in the Peace Corps and flying to the moon. There was no better time to be young.
Fifty years ago, on that Friday afternoon, we remained suspended in dread until the intercom crackled again. I wanted to run, to cover my ears, and to somehow not hear the words I already knew would be just too hard to bear. But, they came anyway, the words came to ears too young; and they came with such a grim and awful clarity that I can still hear them, an unbelievable half-century later. He was gone; my young and beautiful president was dead. My memories of the days that followed are blurry, although some moments stand out in high relief. One way that young people gauge the seriousness of situations that are new to them is to watch the reactions and responses of the adults around them, and I saw so many things in those days that underlined and confirmed the enormity of our tragedy. As I left school and made my way home that afternoon, the nuns I’d always thought might be made of steel were crumbling. Through the bus windows, I saw adults in tears, embracing others or slumped alone against the cold walls of buildings. I was shocked to find my father in front of the living room TV with my ashen mother when I arrived home that day, as unlikely a sight in the middle of a weekday afternoon as a snowflake in August. Family members would fill that room for the next three days as we watched the return of the casket to Washington, the riderless horse, the majestic funeral rites, the heartbreakingly tiny Kennedy children, and the lighting of the flame at Arlington. I don’t remember if we ate or if we spoke or when we slept. I remember my parents’ obvious concern for the effects of the tragedy on their children, though, and I remember finally escaping their attempts at cushioning me. In the middle of that first terrible night, I waited until everyone was asleep and then made my way to the basement where I allowed the floodgates to open. I sobbed in a way that I have never done since. I think it’s possible that my heart broke that day.
We survived, though, all of us then-young Baby Boomers. We went on to experience a succession of violent public tragedies in the years to come, and I think we may have lived our lives with a certain degree of abandon and vigor because we’d learned too early how short a life could be, and how quickly a spark could be quenched. I know that we became different people that day, and I believe that our collective courses all took some turn they would not have otherwise. We haven’t ever really recovered, though, and I know now that we never will. Tears have sprung to my eyes countless times as I’ve written these few paragraphs. I’m not sure if they’re new tears or if they’re leftovers from the endless tears of fifty years ago, but they appear so quickly when I think of him that I’m made aware again of the ongoing ache and the unhealed wound.
I’ve watched our students today with a different eye. Most of them are blissfully unaware of the events of fifty years ago, and even those who know the significance of the day think of it as ancient history. I know they will have their own tragedies and traumas, but I’m so grateful that they won’t have to live through the pain of that awful day in 1963. And I wish with all my might that they will someday feel the sense of hope and promise that came before