Monday, November 22, 2010

Forty-seven years ago today

Where were you on November 22, 1963? Many, most likely most, people who see this post will not yet have been around, or have been very young children, on that day. But those of us who were over perhaps age 10 almost certainly do remember.

That's the day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas -- the day that truly announced to white middle America that the sleepy, peaceful, Eisenhower era was gone for good, the day that really initiated the traumatic time we call "the Sixties."

I was sixteen. I am not going to pretend I understood much of what swirled through the nation over the next few days, but here's my remembrance of that time.

Being a budding politico who had not yet understood that my path was as an operative, not as an office holder, I was carrying out what I think was the only high school elective function I ever managed to wriggle into. I was a sophomore (11th grade) representative to something called the "Judicial Council" -- I think now that our job was to reinforce the school administration's behavioral norms by ostentatiously enforcing discipline on our fellow students. What that meant that day was that I, an underclass twit, was proctoring a detention study hall full of bumptious juniors and seniors. When someone slipped into the room to tell us the President had been shot, I wasn't upset because I doubted my own ability to control the room. The whole school was called to an assembly, then sent home. I don't remember whether they told us that Kennedy was dead.

I did not come from a Kennedy-supporting household. My mother was a Republican committee member and had turned out the vote for Nixon in 1960. My father was a disappointed aging white man, personally quite pleasant, but if he were around today he would be nodding agreement with Tea Party complaints. But for both parents the rise of Hitler and World War II which they understood as a struggle against barbarous dictators defined what mattered in the public realm. (Yes, such conservative anti-fascism made the space for such anomalies as "moderate" Republicans once upon a time.) For a U.S. president to be assassinated within the country threatened everything they trusted in.

I had more or less liked Kennedy's energy, but had no real opinion. Somehow, I had already absorbed the information that this "champion" was foot dragging on civil rights for Black people (Negros) and hoped for more. How little changes when it comes to presidents ...

My parents were glued to the TV. The day after the shooting, a Saturday, I therefore had a chance to borrow the family car to do some shopping. I had just gotten a driving permit and ventured downtown with friends. This also was a chance to indulge my new adult habit -- I could smoke while driving. As I lit up a cigarette, my attention wandered and I dinged a city bus' fender. Fortunately, the bus driver and I agreed that there was no real damage beyond a few scratches so we ignored it. There was an impulse to be gentle with each other in those awful days.

Mother dragged me to church on Sunday (my curmudgeonly father didn't do church) so I missed seeing Jack Ruby shoot accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV. But I didn't miss the replays. Nobody did.

Though like pretty much everyone else I must have watched the mourning and the funeral on the tube, I have no memory of the touching moments we are supposed to recall -- Jackie's dignity, young John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket, the burial at Arlington.

I do remember knowing that Lyndon Johnson would be President and not liking that because he was from the south. The rest of the country looked at the south much as we still often do, as a swamp of bigotry and reaction. Besides, hadn't the south just shot Kennedy? Of course I was wrong about Johnson though it took decades for me to understand that. He was undoubtedly the most successful progressive president of my lifetime until his imperial war brought him down. Would that the present incumbent would understand that going along with a little wars can be the undoing of all good intentions. It doesn't look that way today, but never say never ...

Where were you on November 22, 1963? Do you still care?

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