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.


  1. I too remember this day so vividly, Kathy, even though i lived an ocean awayI. I was 17 and doing my homework with my younger sister at the dining-room table. "Get it done on Friday and then you have the weekend to yourselves" was my mother's refrain.

    She came in to say that the news had just been broadcast on TV and I remember all programming being halted and solemn music being played. The next day my sister and I went by bus to visit our elder sister and the assassination was the main topic of conversation wherever we went.

  2. That's so interesting, Perpetua, that life stopped for that continual news feed in England as well! I remember getting a letter soon after from a high school friend whose father was a British diplomat (and she had been a boarding student at our school). She was then back in London going to school and wrote about her sadness, saying "He might not have been a great man, but he was a good man..." Of course, those of us who were young, hopeful Americans thought he was great because he was so inspiring and made us want to do our best and do that best for our country. It's a concept that's hard to explain to younger generations these days.

  3. I, too, like you was in the TV dorm room with about a hundred other students watching the news unfold about JFK. There were rumors later of a conspiracy or Mafia involvement because of Kennedy connections. The worst thought was that a foreign power had killed our leader in an attempt to undermine our world power. It was a very upsetting time on many levels that we found it difficult to comprehend. I remember my roommate's words, "Why couldn't it have been me?!!" I was not that generous, but the impact was immense.

  4. It really was and, I think, in trying to figure out how this could happen, we all went through every possible scenario. I even remember thinking that maybe LBJ had something to do with it because the Bobby Baker scandal and other things were making people wonder if JFK might dump him in 1964. But who knows -- even after 50 years? It's still impossible to comprehend.

  5. I have a freakishly long memory, and this day is one of my earliest memories. I had just turned two, and I vividly remember my dad coming home from the school where he taught and saying several times, "My God, the President's been shot." Even though I didn't really understand what it was all about, the profound sadness of that event is one I will remember till the end. And I believe there is still a faint underlay of collective shame here in Texas that it happened in Dallas.

  6. Wow, Shelly! That's just amazing that you remember and I can imagine that the emotions around you would have made the biggest impression at that age. I have a memory from when I was three or four of little Kathy Fiscus falling down a well in L.A. (like Baby Jessica in the 80's but with an unhappy ending) and there was constant t.v. coverage in L.A. (this was in 1949) of efforts to get to her and save her. I remember the t.v. coverage and identifying with her because she was my age and we shared the same first name. But what affected me most was seeing all the adults in the neighborhood clustered around the t.v. (we had the only one then) and crying. I had never seen an adult cry before and it made a huge impression. Maybe it was a little like your experience during that long weekend.

    That's interesting that there may still be some collective shame in Texas. Robert Kennedy's assassination in L.A. was certainly tragic, but I don't think that L.A. suffered the same shame and blame that Dallas did.

  7. You are right. The ensuing violence that followed while still horrific, was not as powerful as the killing of Kennedy. That day crushed our sense of security and innocence. Even the great were not safe from a mad man filled with hate. Robert's and Martin's murders cemented that very fact for us.

  8. Oh yes. All of this was just senseless. It's like good people have no rights to their opinion. Only bad people can talk. There is so much hate in the world even today. One wonders why something some one says warrants killing him.
    but brain washing was not a new thing back then and still used today

    1. Sometimes it really does seem like the madness has just escalated, doesn't it? Yet what can we do except be loving and kind and authentic in our own lives?

  9. Your experience very much mirrors mine. At time in our history the violent episodes that have so marked our recent history were unthinkable.