Friday, November 22, 2013
Life-Changing History - Live
Fifty years ago today -- how is that possible?
Every moment is so clear in my memory. It was a deliciously sunny, crisp November day in Chicago. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, just returning to the dorm for lunch when the news came over my roommate Cheryl's radio: "President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. The president has been shot and wounded."
Cheryl and I sat down, staring at each other in complete shock. How could this happen? Especially to such a young, vibrant President? How could it be? We struggled to process what we were hearing.
"Maybe he's not that badly wounded," Cheryl said at last. "Maybe he'll be all right." But the tears glistening in her eyes betrayed her doubt.
Because I didn't know what else to do, I went to my 1 p.m. class which the professor canceled with a shake of his head and a gesture for us all to go. A classmate, Vern Haase, and I went for a walk along the lake, praying and hoping and wondering who could hate so much. As we approached my dorm, a young woman sat on the steps, doubled over with grief, holding a small radio to her ear and sobbing loudly. "Oh, no," Vern whispered, squeezing my arm. "Oh, please, God, no!"
We all spent the weekend in the dorm's television room, watching in stunned silence as the events unfolded: the President's casket and blood-stained, traumatized widow arriving back in Washington; Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death on national television; a tiny John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father as the casket rolled by him. And, to this day, everything is so vivid: what we saw on television and what we experienced ourselves.
It rained heavily in Chicago the day after President Kennedy's death, as we cried and grieved, each in our own way. Lorraine, who lived across the hall, sat quietly staring out her window, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, smoke curling up from the lengthening ash of a forgotten cigarette. Cheryl was on the phone to her parents, weeping and making arrangements to go home to Michigan early for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was in a fog of grief and disbelief. For many of us, it was the first time in our young lives that we had experienced the death of someone we knew.
Yes, President Kennedy did seem like someone we knew. He connected with us on television in a way no other president had before with a singular optimism and vitality. In those years before cynicism and disillusionment, before political divisions running impossibly deep, before tell-all tabloids and outing of personal failings by press and opponents alike, Kennedy was our President -- the man who urged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
We all knew, the moment we heard the news of his death, that we would always remember this moment, seared into our collective consciousness. Even today, after all these years, with Cheryl, Lorraine and Vern all dead for some time, I look back and remember every moment of that afternoon shared with them -- and see once again the shock and sorrow etched on their young faces.
Of course, that first report of JFK's assassination wasn't the end of the shocking news for our generation.
We didn't have to wait for John Lennon's violent death or the terrifying news on 9-11 to have life interrupted and forever changed once again.
Not quite five years after we mourned our fallen President, just as I was finishing graduate school at Northwestern, we were rocked with the news of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations. What many of us felt by then was not so much shock as deep sadness. Violence against leaders wasn't quite the shocking event it had been just a few years before.
It was no longer "How could someone do this? How could this happen?" but rather "Oh, no! Not again!"
And, somehow, in a process started on that crisp, clear November day and culminating with this realization during the turbulent spring of 1968, we were never really young again.