Nearly nothing of being 6 years old snaps back into focus now. Except half a week—when a bullet ripped through a president’s skull and a child’s shapeless heart began to take form.
Rifling through those memories is maddening. Time and media are the great distorters: Which iconic sights and sounds branded on my brain of John F. Kennedy’s death half a century ago, from Dallas murder to D.C. burial, are recalled now as they unspooled in real time from November 22-25, 1963? Which are plucked from a 50-year JFK media loop stretching from my parents’ rabbit-eared, black-and-white boob tube to the YouTube app on my smartphone?
Witnessing the president’s head blown backward as his pretty-in-pink wife scrambled away? Nowhere near real time—the infamous Zapruder film wasn’t broadcast until 1975.
Staring, riveted, as a slow-rolling caisson ferried a flag-draped coffin toward the Capitol Building rotunda to the drumbeat of a death march? Seeing it pass a child they called John-John, half my tender age, throwing his daddy a crisp little salute that was both adorable and agonizing? Very real time. Yesterday, it seems.
Freeze-framed for eternity, those moments belong to history, to all of us. Uniquely mine is one 6-year-old’s introduction to the concept of loss—a personal lesson, shared with a nation and born of an unreal (and too real) day.
Long-ago memories are often like prisms, fracturing recollections into shards of facts, half-truths and blurred details. Even so, this memory, my mind tells me, is whole and clear.
Just three months into my initial engagement with the wider world—kindergarten—came my first disruption: class abruptly dismissed. Why? Who cared? School’s out! No one told us something was wrong. Maybe they told the big kids, the second- and third-graders.
Skip-running home (this was 1963, no adult accompaniment required), we pelted each other with soggy, late-autumn leaves scooped from the gutters of a New York street. We galloped along, but cautiously. Can’t step on a crack and break your mother’s back.
Yet something, I didn’t know what, felt … off. Traffic seemed lighter. Congestion was shifting to sidewalks and storefronts, including the luncheonette where we always stopped to lip-smack over the candy counter. People gathered in clusters. None smiled. Even in New York, perceived by America as the capital of crankiness, that’s an eyebrow-raiser.
Transistor radios blared from everywhere, noise overlapping into a cacophony we couldn’t interpret. Crossing guards were particularly protective at the intersection as pedestrians swelled the streets and clogged our path. Skipping, giggling and pelting ceased. Our routine walk wasn’t so routine.
Slipping in the side door of our eight-story building, I toddled toward our first-floor apartment and pulled up short, startled by a wall of bodies and a wave of sound. Panicked now, I zigzagged between grown-ups and raced through our front door that, strangely, was open, and saw my mom.
As I’d never seen before.
Balled up in a corner on the floor, she sobbed in gasps, body heaving, clinging to a small bookcase like a buoy in an ocean of grief. This was pain. Not the scraped-knee variety I’d known. Something else. It frightened me. Kneeling, I shouted, “Mom! Mom!” Putting her hand over my small wrist, she gave it an “I’m OK” pat.
And kept crying.
Television droned in the background, a distinguished man—Walter, his name was—speaking slowly, sadly. Peering out the door, I finally focused on the human obstacle course I had just cleared: People. Everywhere. Faces, contorted into shell-shocked masks. Crying. Sniffling. Whispering. Trading silent looks as if some other face held an answer to a question I didn’t get.
Living in New York high-rises in boxy apartments stacked top to bottom and shoulder to shoulder, people share cups of sugar, tins of coffee and lives—and today, some sort of horror. Looking over a hectic knot of neighbors growing thicker and thicker along the long hall, I was confused. With my mom emotionally incapacitated, I drifted through, trying to understand. Finally, Mrs. Ranzer, our neighbor in the apartment an arms-reach across from us, told me:
“The president, he … passed away.” Passed? … Huh?
Marching through the throng that reflexively parted for her, Mrs. Landis made her entrance. Large and garrulous, a take-charge Italian mama, she moved from group to group like a grieving hostess, dispensing hugs and consolation, drawing in grown-ups who curiously seemed to need a mother figure. Quieter but just as maternal, Mrs. Ranzer shepherded women who looked shaky into her living room where they could sit and sip juice.
Streaming into our foyer, others crouched by my mom to comfort her, until Mrs. Landis strode in to carefully lift her to her feet, much to my relief. Husbands who had been working, including my dad, came home early, shoehorning into this bizarre block party.
What was all this, really?
Tableaus of disbelief and distress were everywhere, congealing into something I couldn’t understand. (Grown-ups, I came to realize, didn’t understand, either.) Up to then, every day had been simple discovery, a collection of pleasant or at least harmless experiences.
Now, this messy, baffling, overwhelming … thing.
All I grasped then: Something bad happened to someone important, and it was worse than “passing away.” One neighbor wondered if blood got on his wife.
And I sorta knew this man.
Born in 1957, I was an Eisenhower baby, so Ike’s successor was the first president of whom I was vaguely aware, more than I would have been had my mom not swooned, starry-eyed and mesmerized, over this dashing statesman as if he were gift-wrapped by God. (Especially swoon-worthy was his charm at press conferences.)
Over the next few days, an odd numbness enveloped our apartment. I didn’t breeze down the rickety slide in the playground. I didn’t bounce a red rubber ball in the lot I could get to by crawling out our window. I didn’t flick marbles on the floor of my room. Playing felt wrong.
Life—real life—emanated only from the big box in the corner of our living room, flickering with eerie black-and-white images in a kind of noir dream. “Bulletins” and “flashes,” as they were called, whisked us between a hospital and a police station and a street where the bad thing happened, inevitably returning to a craggy-faced man named Lyndon.
Names—“Dealey Plaza,” “book depository,” “Jackie,” “Lee Harvey Oswald” (the man who did the bad thing)—floated around our house for a couple of days. Suddenly a new name—“Jack Ruby”—and a second act of outta-nowhere violence dominated the TV. Over and over and over, we watched the replayed murder of the murderer. Later, I saw the newspaper photos that captured Oswald grimacing and crumbling at the barrel of Ruby’s revolver. On TV, it was just a blurry mob of cops and chaos.
Repeating a mantra in several permutations—ohmyGod! OH … MY … GOD! Oh-DEAR-Lord!—my parents were horrified. Riveted, too. So were Mrs. Ranzer and Mrs. Landis, frequent drop-ins sometimes joined by Mrs. Lersch, the stoic neighbor down the hall, with her son, Roland, my best friend, in tow. Searching for clues for how to react to something this confounding, we watched them. Then the TV. Then them again.
Was the world always like this?
Around the time that Ruby killed the guy who killed the president, came what was for me the only comprehensible episode in all this madness: something called “lying in state.” And a funeral. A big one.
There was a “procession”—kind of a parade, but without clowns or floats or joy—that glumly headed down the street where that big white house was, at a snail’s pace. There was a terribly mournful trumpet, so lonely-sounding, playing something that wasn’t really a song, called “Taps.” There was the slow, sad cadence of snare drums. There was a woman in a long veil. There was a little boy. Saluting.
There was a casket. It gave me a chill. Did they really put dead people in that?
Draped by a flag—the same kind we stood for in class—it was atop a carriage pulled by really neat-looking white horses until it got to this big lobby.
Was he actually in that thing? What did he look like under there?
People stopped. Stared. Cried. Moved on. Not in my hallway this time. On television.
Unlike the jumble and babble of the past 72 hours, here was a sequential narrative of words and images, stately and orderly, spelling out the grim bottom line in a way even a child could fathom.
This was death. Final. Good-bye. However it happened … the end.
Sadness stubbornly clung to my mom for some time after we snapped off the set on November 25, 1963. And I began to realize: Those we love—up-close or from afar—do leave us. And it hurts. Bad.
Loss would turn personal, as it does for everyone. By my 12th birthday, the only two grandparents I knew were gone. Eventually, both parents died (Mom slowly, Dad in an eye blink), plus two good friends (each too young) and extended family members (one a suicide). Reluctantly, I’ve grown adept at eulogies (four, and hopefully not counting).
Yet when personal loss came, I’d had a leg up in processing them because JFK’s death was personal—just personal to an entire nation. Not again until 9/11 would such a big hole be blasted through the national soul.
Kids coming up behind us over the next nearly 40 years would witness American leaders threatened, wounded, dishonored and sexually disgraced (Ford, Reagan, Nixon and Clinton, respectively). But they weren’t around when one—young, vibrant, potentially transformative—had his brain splattered on his first lady’s Chanel suit.
When a spaceship full of people carrying the intrepid name of Challenger exploded in the sky in 1986, we wept. Yet it was a reminder of the risks of adventure, and the loss was in the service of noble aspirations. And even in its monstrous dimensions, that unimaginable fall day in 2001 was more diffuse and less personal. As framed by the media, that loss for most of us became a massive checkerboard of unknown faces, rather than just one that was instantly identifiable, the face of a new national prince, an emblem of new beginnings.
Part of the family.
Losses of such historical import as 9/11 and the JFK assassination mark children—still developing perceptions of the world—more profoundly than they do adults whose optimism, pessimism or indifference is fixed as a coping mechanism.
On September 11, 2001, children were marked in ways that I, for all my revulsion and anger, could never know. They were destined to construct their worldview in a wary, defensive America. On November 22, 1963, I was marked in ways my mom, for all her sobbing and shattered hope, would never understand. I was destined to develop my values and morals in a rebellious, culturally schizophrenic America.
Social historians endlessly analyze the psychic fallout from a president’s murder on the baby boomers. Excessive cynicism afflicted some of us as we looked back (generational change gruesomely reversed, reinforced by the slayings of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X before the decade was up, compounded by Nixon, Kent State and Vietnam). Others became pie-eyed daydreamers (we’ll all make love, not war, in fields of daffodils, pausing only to smoke dope, rock out and cheer at Abbie Hoffman’s “Viet-Fucking-Nam” rallies).
Ironically, it was all unleashed by an oxymoron: JFK is the loss that never leaves.
Owing to unquenchable conspiracy theorists manufacturing a veritable assassination cottage industry—second shooters, magic bullets, Kremlin plotters, Vietnam military hawks, Mafia vengeance, Castro loyalists, even a jealous LBJ—the murder morphed into a global parlor game, keeping it perpetually fresh in the public consciousness.
Fifty years later, some of us still won’t tuck it away.
Lessons that would grow clearer to me as years rolled by were birthed on The Day JFK Died:
• Everyone is vulnerable, from the physical vulnerabilities of the most powerful and protected person on the planet to the emotional vulnerabilities of the parents whom children imagine are indestructible. Distilling that lesson into everyday practice means treating others—especially in an increasingly mean-spirited, Internet-driven world—as if they can be hurt by what you say and do.
• Life is random, the world is capricious and fairness as your life unfolds is a bonus, not a birthright.
• Hearts not wounded and toughened by pain and loss are hollow organs that keep us breathing but not living.
• Value can be salvaged from tragedy—and out of a national nightmare, a child’s shapeless heart can find its form.