The answer to that question for me, is more like a scene frozen in time, than a memory.
On November 22nd 1963 I was 13 days away from turning 6, just 2 months into Kindergarten, and very much in love with Mighty Mouse. I’d been watching as Mighty’s sweetheart, Pearl Pureheart, struggled against the villian’s dastardly deeds. Mighty Mouse was well on his way to saving the day, when all of a sudden the news came on. I felt confusion and disappointment that my story had been interrupted before it was finished.
My older sister, empty orange juice cans rolled into her frosted hair, suddenly appeared at our house in the middle of the day, and she was crying. Her presence, which normally would have heralded some kind of celebration – a birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas maybe, was now a serious gathering. Grown ups murmured low with worried fear and confusion etched on their faces. I knew that this was something bigger than a preempted cartoon, but I had no way of comprehending the gravity of the situation.
Over the years, as this question was asked over and over, I struggled to find the meaning in my own personal memory, which seemed insignificant compared to those of others older than I was at the time. I wanted to have a story to tell too, and I wanted it to have a conclusion, or at least turn it into a lesson learned, or better yet, a metaphor. It took years for me to realize the full weight of that day. I was just too young at the time to understand.
This week and its full-on media onslaught of stories from that weekend have helped me. I, along with others in my age group saw for the first time, frames 312 through 314 of the infamous Zapruder film, those graphic images thought at the time to be something the public should be shielded from. I heard the story of the young photographer who had just handed off the spent roll of film in his camera when the fatal shots rang out. Looking in the direction of the sound, he saw with his own eyes the barrel of the rifle in the window of the book depository, but was unable to catch it with no film in his camera. Later that horrible weekend, that same photographer would catch on film the split second where Jack Ruby’s gun snuffed out any chance we the people would have to learn why a 26 year old loser had just killed our President.
In hearing about these missed opportunities, and unanswered questions, I think I finally found some meaning for my memory. A group of people that I frequently hang out with, for dinners, drinks, volunteer work or just for fun, happened to be gathered last night, and that familiar question inevitably came up. I realized that I was the youngster at the table as I listened to their stories of teachers, nuns, school administrators all delivering this unimaginable news in respectful, awkward and stunned ways. The age difference of 5 or so years, insignificant at this stage of our lives, made all the difference, because at age 8 or 10, my friends were all better able than I had been to relate this event to their lives in a larger sense, and to feel the loss, and to sense the fear, the foreboding of what might happen next. But, what I kept hearing was that they were all looking for a way to make some sense of what happened. They, like me, were, and still are looking for answers.
Everyone’s memory of that day is intensely personal. But one thing is sure – everyone’s life was disrupted to some degree. Whether on a grand scale, that included politics or international relations, or if it was that you were sent home from work or school, even if it was just that you couldn’t watch your favorite TV show. It seems to me that at that time in our history, the American people were struggling with some kind of evil, or villain if you will. Whether or not President Kennedy would have been able to swoop in and “save the day” is a question that will never be answered. That story was interrupted before it could be finished.
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