One of the privileges of living as long as some of us have is that you get to witness a respectable amount of history. I have clear personal memories of Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run to win the 1960 World Series for Pittsburgh; Alan Shepard’s ride into space in 1962; John Glenn’s orbiting of the earth a year later; the Beatles’ appearance on that famous Ed Sullivan Show in 1964; the shootings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968; the long string of Gemini and Apollo missions leading up to the moon landing in 1969; the War in Vietnam, which we called simply “The War,” and which distorted my college years with the threat of being drafted; the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974 in the wake of Watergate;the killing of John Lennon in the lobby of his New York apartment building in 1980.
You can divide humanity between those who have a living memory of these things and those who will only read about them, should they even care to.
But looming above all these events for those of us who lived through them is one harrowing moment that forever changed life in America and how we conceived it. That was when, 50 years ago, the President of the United States was assassinated. It was the 9/11 of my generation, in that nothing that ever followed would seem quite as inconceivable.
I was a kid in junior high school in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and boys in those days lived for space. I mean outer space, as we called it then, and it was a glorious time to be alive and young if you cared about science, or what we understood to be science, as I deeply did then, and about the prospect of space travel, which we assumed would become commonplace in our lifetimes.
Imagine being a boy like that in the greatest country in the world, and that country declares that its top priority is to put a man on the moon within a handful of years. Even a kid can be patient for that long.
And the man who declared this was younger than my father, and handsome, and had, like my father, a beautiful wife, and didn’t wear a hat like most men did then, and didn’t even wear an overcoat on cold days — didn’t seem to need it or to care — and had a habit of running his hand through his thick hair, and hung out with his brother, and was president of the United States. I didn’t know anything about politics, but I liked him.
On the day he was shot we were in school. It was a Friday. We were asked to return to what we called our home rooms, which was unusual at that time of the day, nearing mid-afternoon, almost time to go home, the yellow buses lined up in the circle outside the school, and I went as told, like everyone else, to my home room. And there was a TV in the room, another anomaly, wheeled in on a metal cart and plugged into the wall, and then Walter Cronkite was on the screen saying that the President had been shot in Dallas and then, a little later, that the president was dead.
What I mainly remember of that moment was looking out at the buses lined up outside, the late autumn light slanting through the windows of our classroom, and thinking that my parents’ world had changed, and that therefore my world had changed, and I didn’t know how. Everything seemed as orderly as before, everything seemed to be under control, but what we had just been told suggested that all of that was a pleasant lie.
We had the weekend to begin to mourn and watch TV, which was given over entirely to the event. There were no commercials, no programming, nothing but the continual reporting of what had happened and what would happen next. My mother, married to a Republican, admitted tearfully to my father that she had voted for Kennedy, which shocked and angered him, as it meant that his vote, three years before, had been neutralized. My younger brother and I looked on in awe.
On Sunday, incredibly, there was another public shooting, as the man who had been arrested for killing the president was shot in turn by another man, this time on television. Clearly the world had come loose from its moorings; the violence of fiction and movies had invaded the real world, never to retreat. That same day Kennedy’s casket was moved on a caisson (a word we learned that day) along Pennsylvania Avenue, led by a riderless black horse, high empty boots backwards in its saddle, symbolism from a bygone age, yet immediately understood.
Kennedy was buried on Monday, a national day of mourning. Schools were closed and we again watched TV all day, watched the dead president’s three-year old son improbably, heartbreakingly, salute his father’s casket as it passed by (I try to imagine my grandson, three years old this month, doing this and cannot), watched the woman we knew even then as Jackie with her black veil floating in the wind at Arlington, a place I didn’t then know but would come to, as she and her husband’s brother lit a flame at the president’s grave, and declared it eternal.
On Tuesday we went back to school. There was little talk about “closure” in those days; I don’t think the term had yet been invented. There was certainly less belief in the need for kids our age to express our anxieties. The instinct of our teachers was exactly the opposite: get back to business, make them work, take them out of themselves and back into the worlds of Latin and chemistry and Moby-Dick. And so we did what we were told.
But we were anxious, and the world had changed, and would never be quite right again. In a very few years Martin Luther King would be shot and then, a mere two months later, Bobby Kennedy too, the completion of an awful triptych of murders of public men that seemed, by then, almost inevitable. I remember being awakened by my mother on the morning after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination (we were still in Pittsburgh, too many time zones from L.A. to have learned at the moment it occurred) and, when she told me the news, lying in my bed thinking, first, “Oh no,” and then, “Of course.”
On the summer night a year later while I waited, rapt, in the rec room of my girlfriend’s home for Armstrong to climb down onto the face of the moon, I thought back, as we all did, to Kennedy and his resolution that this night would come. And come it had, in part as a tribute to what we had lost, and were still losing. After a few more trips, we stopped going to the moon, and it became clear that my childhood dreams of living in outer space were just that.
The cliché is that we lost our innocence that day in Dallas, but that doesn’t quite capture what had happened. We were never innocent, and we weren’t so lost that we wouldn’t still get to the moon. But we had believed in a fundamental civility to American public life, to the life of adults, a world of order that had been built up from our infancy in a million small expectations met and niceties observed and rules enforced. That web of order is what Oswald’s bullets tore away from us. It was in a horrible way a liberation; we were thereafter able more easily to become the rebellious, wastrel generation we became, to stand up to our parents, to reject the War, to embrace that loss of civility as a sign of freedom. And eventually, as the songs predicted and as we knew in our hearts, we were to take over the broken world that day bequeathed to us.
So when September 11, 2001 came ‘round to claim us, we of my generation were, in a sorry way, prepared.