Saturday, November 22, 2008

45 Years Ago

I thought I would never recover from that afternoon on November 22, 1963. Even a year later I cried watching the USIA film "John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums." Everybody who was alive remembers where they were when they heard about the shots in Dallas.

In fact, the whole idea of remembering where you were when ... that started then.

I was on a 5th grade field trip to the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, also known as the Pink House because its exterior walls are painted in an amalgam of the fighting colors of each side in a long civil war in the 19th century -- red and white.

It was the one place sure to hear about the events in Dallas almost instantaneously. And so it happened. We were waiting to go into one of the ceremonial rooms when a man walked up to another saying, "We have to tell the president that Kennedy's been shot."

The tour ended sometime later in a blur. One of the teachers had our school bus stop by a news kiosk and bought a tabloid with the start headline that confirmed that something had happened.

The headline hedged and the paper was, from what I knew, hugely disreputable and purchased only for fun. Someone had once called to my attention a photo of a pugilist it ran with the caption "Here is [boxer I can't recall] as he will look when he climbs down from his plane from Europe tomorrow."

So, of course, it wasn't true. Right? It couldn't have happened. Right? In the United States ... then, wait ... Abraham Lincoln came into focus.

The bus stopped again at another kiosk where a teacher bought a second edition of a more reputable evening paper.

Not only had he been shot, he was dead!

"It was the Russians!" said my grandmother.

"It was the Cubans!" said another relative.

"It was the Germans!" exclaimed my mother's foot doctor, a European Jew with some reason to mistrust Germans.

We still don't know who it was and at this point it no longer matters.

The event changed all of us. A significant part of the hopeful, optimistic, can-do, largely admired, at worst envied land, verging on fulfilling its promise to do better by humanity, that USA died that day. If I ever believed in a happy ending for history, that stopped that day.

I had no inkling of what it would feel like 45 years later. At the ripe old age of 11, I wrote a letter to the pope, asking that Kennedy be canonized as a martyr. How oddly funny it seems today!

Yet my own childish sentiment was very little different from those of poor and simple people living in huts in Latin America and slums of Brooklyn where they keep their pictures or statuettes of the Virgin Mary next to their picture of Kennedy, decades later still smiling, still inspiring hope.

Even this past year, we flea-bitten, media-savvy, Watergated and Vietnamed and Bushwacked Americans saw in a black senator from Illinois something "Kennedyesque" that moved us all.
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