That Dreadful Day
Somewhere in my attic there is a box of newspapers that have been there for half a century ― mementos of what happened on that dreadful day, Nov. 22, 1963, and those that followed. I’m not sure why I saved them, though, since the events of that day and the days that followed it are still firmly imprinted on my consciousness.
The election of JFK had been a watershed event ― not for its political ramifications, but for the sense of vitality that he and his young family epitomized. After eight years of watching an aging President Eisenhower play golf and recover from heart attacks, the nation seemed rejuvenated by the sight of little children at play in the White House and the handsome Kennedy clan playing touch football.
When a hatless Kennedy delivered his “ask not” inaugural address on a bitter, sunshine-drenched January noontime, it felt as though a page had been turned. World War II was finally firmly in the rear-view mirror and racing for the moon would lie ahead (unfortunately, so would the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War, but we did not know it then).
Whether you had been a supporter or critic of the President, whether you thought his election was a change in style or substance, what happened on Nov. 22 was a deeply felt death in the nation’s family, and television brought the sorrow of collective mourning into every living room.
Some of the sounds and sights were indelibly burned into our hearts: the John-John salute, the first lady’s kiss of her husband’s coffin in the Capitol rotunda, the Navy hymn, the funeral march, and the relentless drumbeats that marked each step of the riderless horse on the long, sad procession to Arlington National Cemetery. We saw it all and felt it all, and we did so together.
What we didn’t know then was that November 1963 would mark the end of a different era ― the end of an age of acquiesced innocence, where television’s nuclear families were all Norman Rockwell stereotypes and movies were absent four-letter words, nudity, or graphic violence. The unthinkable had happened in Dallas and our American society would never be quite the same again.
In the years that followed we would experience the unthinkable over and over again, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, in the ravished streets of Detroit and Newark, on the campuses of Kent State and Columbine, at the offices in the World Trade Center and in the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary.
There is little left that shocks us now that the unthinkable has become almost routine, and little that we respond to uniformly now that any vestige of a collective national consciousness has been fractured into a thousand splintered self-interests.
Someone asked me once why someone would want to read about a sporting event the next day in the newspaper when he had seen it live or on television. I think it’s because the articles reinforce (or challenge) our own interpretation of events and fold a thousand disparate images and experiences into a single theme, something we can hold on to when we file the event in our memory.
Somehow, through its palpable nature, print always seems to ground us in reality. Now, 50 years later, it may finally be time to dig out that box and look once more at those 1963 newspapers. Then they will go back into the attic, safely stored away, because they forever assure me that the events of November 22 really happened, that the pain I felt then was truly shared by others, and that the half-century regret over what might have been, and what might have been different, is an accurate reflection of those awful events.