Memory has its own calendar. When someone dies, memories of the departed always burn brightest in those first left behind. They erect the headstones and mark each anniversary, first in years, then in decades. Eventually, they pass the torch to the next generation and hope they’ll tend the flame.
A national tragedy is not exempt from this ritual. Those who are alive on an infamous day when the nation’s soul is seared will pause to reflect a year later–and for several years thereafter on that date–and share their memories of what happened, where they were, what they saw and heard and felt. They’ll try to find the words to express what was lost.
As the years blend into decades, we pause in increments of fives and then tens, because that’s the way our ancestors decided to count important things. We come together on the fifth anniversary, the 10th, the 20th and the 25th. And when the 50th anniversary arrives, those with a living memory share their thoughts one last time. So it was with December 7, so it will be with September 11.
And so it is with November 22. This week, Americans of a certain age are bidding their final farewell to John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It was the middle of a Friday afternoon when the news flashed across wire service tickers and the first bulletins interrupted daytime soap operas on black-and-white TVs. Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas. The president was hit. He was taken to Parkland Hospital.
Shoppers in stores spread the news by word of mouth; some of them kept shopping while others ran home as fast as they could. An old Emerson radio on top of a kitchen refrigerator was switched on and the announcer said two Catholic priests had just emerged from Parkland Hospital–they’d given the president his Last Rites. A grandmother wept. “He was so young,” she cried.
A stricken teacher told her students the president was dead. A principal announced the school was closing early. When everyone got home, we all gathered in front of the television–there was only one and it was in the living room–which began a broadcast that would last for four days without interruption, with the exception of football games the NFL inexplicably refused to cancel.
It seemed unreal, until the president’s plane landed in Washington on Friday evening and they brought him out in a stark bronze casket. Jackie Kennedy stood beside the casket, refusing to let go of it until the president’s brother Bobby gently pulled her into a car. Her skirt was covered with blood. Lyndon Johnson told the nation he’d do his best, sounding old and tired and nothing like the man he replaced, the youngest man ever elected president.
On Saturday, they put President Kennedy’s body into a coffin made of 500-year-old African mahogany, covered it with an American flag and placed it in the East Room of the White House. A military honor guard stood vigil, including members of the U.S. Army’s new Special Forces, commandos known as Green Berets, a unit the president had admired.
On Sunday afternoon, they carried the president’s coffin out of the White House past rows of soldiers holding the flags of all 50 states and placed it on a horse-drawn caisson. More than 300,000 people lined Pennsylvania Avenue and silently watched the caisson slowly make its way to the Capitol, the only sounds a muffled drumbeat and horses’ hooves on the pavement. Walking behind the caisson was a riderless horse carrying black riding boots reversed in the stirrups, symbolizing a fallen leader looking back on his troops for the last time. In the Capitol Rotunda, the coffin was placed on a catafalque–a simple bier of rough pine boards nailed together and covered with black cloth–that was built in 1865 to display Lincoln’s body. The president’s six-year-old daughter, Caroline, and Jackie, now dressed in black, knelt and kissed the flag.
More than 250,000 Americans lined up in freezing temperatures to pay their respects to President Kennedy. The 10-person-wide line was 40 blocks long and it took up to 10 hours for each person to reach the bier. The viewing was supposed to end at 9:00 p.m., but there were still so many people in line the Rotunda remained open all night.
Also on Sunday, kids across America were sitting in front of TVs waiting for NFL kickoffs when they saw the man accused of killing the president get shot to death on national television.
On Monday, a national day of mourning, more than a million people lined the route of the funeral procession as it slowly moved from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. The entire nation joined them, watching on television, as the muffled drums echoed again. The president’s widow, his family, the new president and dozens of world leaders walked behind the flag-draped coffin from the Capitol to the Cathedral.
President Kennedy had promised his son he would be home in time to celebrate the boy’s birthday on Monday. Instead, on Nov. 25, three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. stood with his mother and his sister in front of St. Matthew’s and saluted his father as the procession to Arlington began.
The 35th president of the United States was laid to rest on the gentle slope of a hill at our national cemetery. A flame was lit at the graveside, where it still burns today.
The following Thursday, we all came together over somber Thanksgiving dinners and wondered how this could possibly have happened in America. Fifty years later, we’re still not certain and we’re not sure we really want to know the truth.
All of the old conspiracy theories and iconic totems of the crime have been trotted out in the days leading up to the 50th anniversary, which also eerily falls on a Friday.
An archivist displays Oswald’s wedding ring, left in a tea cup on his dresser on the morning of Nov. 22. Buell Frazier reenacts driving Lee to work in Frazier’s black 1954 Chevy, wondering why he didn’t check the package on the back seat to see if it really contained curtain rods.
The magic bullet, the umbrella man and a strip-club owner with nefarious connections to the Chicago mob parade before us. Maybe this time someone will explain why Ruby pulled the trigger with his middle finger. Fidel Castro crawls out of his nursing home to deny for the upteenth time that Oswald gave any hint of the heinous deed to come when Lee visited Cuba’s embassy in Mexico City two months before Kennedy died.
And, of course, the most famous 8-mm silent film ever made is played and replayed on a seemingly endless loop. We know what happens, but still we’re drawn through the lens of dressmaker Abe Zapruder’s Bell & Howell and jolted by the savagery of Frame 313, when the final bullet arrives, Jackie’s eyes widen in horror and a hideously brilliant burst of crimson obscures everything.
They never found the bullet that killed the president, but deep down we know where it went. It tore through the fabric of America, its trajectory creating a seismic demarcation line between the illusory innocence of before and the grim reality of after. Along the way, it must have planted a demon seed from which all the bad that followed seemed to sprout: race riots, a quagmire in Vietnam that cleaved the nation into two warring factions, a cultural divide pitting generations of Americans against each other, Bobby and Martin shot dead, a belief that our institutions could not be trusted, that dirty hands were doing bloody deeds.
The Sixties of bracing idealism, peaceful civil rights marches, a soaring race to the stars, a nation united by goofy twist parties and physical-fitness contests at the behest of a dashing young leader who urged us to act with “vigah” gave way to the freaky-deaky Sixties at 12:30 CST on November 22, 1963 and there was no turning back.
But memory has its own way of sorting out the good from the bad and protecting us from the worst. It builds a thick scar over the most grievous injuries and summons forth the goodness we thought we’d forgotten, the times and acts and people worth remembering.
So as we mark the passage of a half-century from a day consumed by darkness, we’ll remember a skinny and sickly young man of privilege who twice rose from his deathbed to write his own profile in courage. With a winning smile and a gift for laughing at life’s absurdities (and making us laugh with him) he convinced us he was ready to steer the ship of state. If the boat got cut in half in the dangerous waters ahead, we knew we could count on him to dive in and try to save us.
We remember a 43-year-old man with a youthful shock of rust-colored hair, coatless on a freezing January day, jabbing his finger into the air and hurling a challenge at all of us. Don’t ask me what I can do for you, he said, ask what you can do for America.
He told a governor blocking a schoolhouse door to get out of the way and urged us to tear down a century-old wall we had erected to separate Americans from Americans. Then he stood beside a wall in Berlin and told the world that when one man is enslaved, all are not free.
He stared into the abyss of nuclear Armageddon and had the wisdom to step back. He succeeded in banning test explosions of hydrogen bombs from the face of the Earth and sent Americans to plant our flag on the airless surface of the Moon.
He was a complex, intelligent man whose glowing public persona and picture-perfect family concealed all-too-human flaws which would be harshly exposed for all to see long after he died. But he also was an heroic figure who reached for greatness and inspired us to follow, making us believe we could shape a future that was far better than the past.
History’s verdict on President Kennedy remains incomplete, but America’s is not. Hundreds of schools, public buildings and streets across the United States still are named for him, including the Space Center in Cape Canaveral and the Performing Arts Center in Washington, honoring two of JFK’s passions, exploration and the arts. In countless Irish bars and Italian barbershops and similar places, his portrait still hangs in a place of honor.
Kennedy remains our tragic hero, and the world appears to agree. Cities in at least 30 nations have boulevards named for him; it seems like every large and medium-sized village in France has an Avenue du President-Kennedy.
Zapruder’s film no doubt will be unspooled again on Friday. We’ll watch the midnight-blue Lincoln Continental slowly come out of the turn onto Elm Street, the president and his wife sitting in the back seat. We’ll see the child run down the side of the street to greet them, the motorcycle cops cool yet ramrod straight behind their shades, the women with kerchiefs on their heads standing beneath the tree on Elm Street just a few yards down from the front of the Texas School Book Depository, waving at Jack and Jackie. We’ll see our president turn towards them and slowly lift his arm. In the next frame, we’ll see his graceful wave and the hint of a smile to come.
That’s where we’ll stop the projector and freeze the frame and let it slowly fade to black. And with a wave and a smile, the President Kennedy we knew finally will recede into the depths of history.