Whenever November 22 falls on a Friday, my heart is transported to the time of the assassination of President John Kennedy. I was nine years old in 1963 and due to the events that unfolded always remember that year November 22 fell on a Friday. I am not a person who has all kinds of vivid memories of childhood, and admit that I don’t remember in detail that day, but I certainly remember the date and the event. We were sent home from school with the sad knowledge that someone had killed our president. Because I was nine, I didn’t understand the full implication of what his death meant, but what I didn’t know was that the adults around me were even more uncertain of its meaning because it had a matrix of possible implications to them, many which were dire.
It seemed to me that the adult world stopped and there was a great fear of some unknown impending doom: what is going to happen next?
In those days at school we had drills in case of a nuclear attack by Russia. We were told how to cover our heads with our hands as if that would have made any difference should a nuclear missile strike our steel producing city. There was anxiety about whether with the president’s assassination we were moving to the next missile crisis. But most of these fears were beyond my protected and naive world in which I was far more fearful of being made fun of by friends or being tagged as I walked home from school by someone who came running up from behind and shouted “no tag backs.” Because then I would be “It” for the entire evening.
I knew my parents both voted for President Kennedy, and he was somehow an emblem of America – youthful, confident, hopeful, forward looking, intelligent, free and independent. He was very idealized in the world I grew up in – a wonderful father and husband, beautiful family, WWII hero, working to make a better America for all, rich and famous yet caring for the average family.
There is nothing wrong with young people having heroes – or imagining that a president is the image of what we all hope to be someday. It would take time – the unfolding of history – for me to learn that he was really a licentious, dissolute prodigal, whose body was diseased. It took longer to realize he really wasn’t all that effective as a senator or a president. He came to power because his father was rich and powerful through a system flawed by corruption. Some of the things he was given credit for – social and racial justice and landing a man on the moon were really much more the accomplishments of his successor. He was much more image than substantive in terms of political accomplishment and will not be considered one of the greatest American presidents. He died in office by an assassin’s bullet which made him an American martyr and larger than life hero, but again that fed the mystique. We do at times need heroes, statesmen, inspiration. We also have to be able to recognize the difference between idealization, idolization and reality and come to terms with truth.
On Sunday, November 24, 1963, I asked to be excused from the table of our Sunday dinner so that I could watch Lee Harvey Oswald being moved from the Dallas jail. I wanted to see the man who had murdered the president. I was watching the TV during dinner at a time when our family was not normally glued to the TV. It was unusual for me to be watching the TV at that hour when Oswald himself was gunned down by Jack Ruby. New fears like major earthquake after shocks rumbled through the country: what is going to happen next? And that would continue rippling through the American psyche and history as an endless series of conspiracy theories. Those have never interested me.
At the time, in my nine year old mind, I wasn’t even sure why Oswald’s death was such a big deal. Wasn’t he going to get the death penalty anyway? All the unanswered questions that died with him were not yet on my mind. And the fears that something larger was afoot in America – a sinister, hidden threat – would cause anxiety in so many corners of the adult world. I could only observe their uncertainty and feel the sadness, the mourning, the grief.
I did visit Dallas book depository museum in my one trip to that city. It all seemed more compact than the larger than life images I had of where the assassination happened. I have also visited the President’s grave in Washington, DC, which seemed so familiar to me from the images I had seen of it.
Fifty six years later, I feel an emotional sting when I think about the event, even though my knowledge of the man has changed. And today what really strikes me is how utterly horrified so many were at that time by the the life of one man being cut short by a gun. Nowadays shootings of children in our schools seem to be a regular part of life these days. We seem far less horrified today at the murder of our children each month by guns than we did at the death of a president half a century ago. Something died in our hearts and minds over the decades and it seems that in America we value and love our guns more than our children. We seem more concerned about having our guns taken away from us than about having our children taken from us. At a minimum if we don’t want to sacrifice some of our guns, gun owners should be working hard to figure out how to sacrifice none of our children to guns. If the price of an unrestricted Second Amendment is that some children must die, is that not too high a price to be paid?