Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, makes the following observation about time;
“All moments, past, present and future always existed and always will … It is just an illusion we have that one moment follows another like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.”
Vonnegut’s reflection comes to mind this past Thanksgiving when families gather to observe a traditional celebration with friends and loved ones. Those of a certain age may have thought about a date they’d never forget – Friday, November 22, 1963. When Thanksgiving that year arrived the following week, it seemed to many that there was very little to be thankful for.
Fifty-two years ago on that Friday, an entire generation lost its national innocence when the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas. Everyone old enough to comprehend the awful news of that event remembers exactly where he or she was and what they were doing – a stopped time etched forever in poignant and unrelenting memory.
The whole country, despite different political persuasions, was shocked at the unexpected vulnerability and violent death of one of the most closely guarded individuals in the world, and that realization had a very personal meaning as well – no one could be safe and secure when the head of the nation fell victim to an assassin’s bullet without warning or apparent reason. It was a feeling that a later generation could identify with after the events of 9/11, and a previous one learned from Pearl Harbor.
Of course, anyone cut down at the apogee of youth and promise evokes a sentiment of premature loss while at the same time preserving the moment and safeguarding it from disillusionment and possible disgrace. The poet A.E. Housman, in his To An Athlete Dying Young, expressed the feeling well:
“Smart lad to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose”
The death of the president was especially shocking because no American chief executive had been killed in office since William McKinley in 1901, though there had been attempts on other presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and FDR. A stunned nation, after much radio and TV coverage, finally accepted the reality of the grim event, but by and large was unable to express itself in language. Speaking of the country’s loss as well as his own, Robert Kennedy quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus:
“In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
A short while later, he too would be felled by an assassin’s bullet, and the same words are now inscribed on his monument at Arlington National Cemetery where his brother lies as well.
Some will recall that John Kennedy was elected by the barest of margins, and that much of his proposed legislation failed to pass; in addition, his administration was stigmatized by the abortive failure of the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Others will remember the decisive confrontation between JFK and Khrushchev known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since that time, disturbing facts have been revealed about Kennedy’s physical health and his extra-marital affairs, tarnishing our recollection of him, and puzzling many by the apparent gap between private and public behavior.
He certainly was not perfect, sharing the flaws to which we are all subject and which we tend to tolerate least in our leaders. Nonetheless, his youthfulness, his wit, his vigor – above all his personal style – all combined to inspire many of his fellow citizens in a way that we have not seen since. His sudden death at the height of his powers and before his potential could be fulfilled was a watershed in our national consciousness, and it was clear that life itself would never be the same. Overnight, we became fearful, and all of us were suddenly older beyond our years.
E.B. White, the author and New Yorker magazine writer who was a longtime resident of Brooklin on the Maine coast, spoke for many at the time who were wordless in their grief, using a metaphor of the sea, and creating an image now part of a world long changed but somehow still real and vital:
“When we think of him, he is without a hat, standing in the wind and the weather. He was impatient of topcoats and hats, preferring to be exposed, and he was young enough and tough enough to confront and to enjoy the cold and wind of these times, whether the winds of nature or the winds of political circumstance and national danger . . .It can be said of him, as of few men in a like position, that he did not fear the weather, and did not trim his sails, but instead challenged the wind itself, to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.”
So as we celebrated Thanksgiving this year, the thoughts of some may have returned to 1963 when the world as it was known then was turned upside down by a man with a gun, never again to be fully righted. At the time, and from the narrow perspective of a young, white, employed, college-educated male with a growing family, life seemed predictable and fair and could only get better. Now, more than a half-century later, it’s still profoundly unsettling to realize it was an illusion that was suddenly and irrevocably shattered. I was forced to accept that life could quickly become anything but fair and predictable, that the course of human history could too easily be altered by a single, irrational act – the crack of rifle shots, the explosion of bombs in public places, the crash of planes into buildings – and that no one would ever feel completely safe again.