Monday, November 22, 2010

News Events That Define Our Lives

Forty-seven 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'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? What would happen to his family? What would happen to the country? "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.

I went to my 1 p.m. class which the professor canceled in light of the events of the day. A classmate, Vern, and I went for a walk along the lake, praying and hoping and wondering who could hate so much. As we walked up to 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. For many of us, President Kennedy did seem like someone we knew and, certainly, admired. In those years 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."

In my own life, there had been a few previous deaths in the news that drew my attention. When I was eight, I cried when I heard about the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg because I felt so sorry for the young sons they were leaving behind and couldn't help but ask if being in jail wasn't punishment enough. And when 24-year-old Emilie Dionne died the next year, I stared for a long time at the picture in LIFE magazine that showed Emilie in her coffin and her four identical sisters standing there looking at her. I wondered how it must feel to look into a coffin and see a face so like one's own, the face of a much-loved sister.  But there was nothing like President Kennedy's assassination.  We all knew, the moment we heard the news, 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 wasn't the end of the shocking news. We didn't have to wait for John Lennon's violent death or the terrifying news on 9-11. No, 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, with this shift, this realization, we were never really young again.

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