50 Years

JFK

I am reposting this from a few years ago. The television is awash with the image of JFK. How can it possibly have been 50 years? I can’t say it better than I did originally.

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I watched a PBS special on the Kennedys last night. I have seen it before but that did not stop me from viewing it again. And I cannot watch it without emotion. It is a well-measured piece of journalism which does nothing to gloss over the personal shortcomings that percolated beneath the public triumphs of the pre-eminent American political family.

The Kennedys are a sizable hunk of mythology to much of the population. But for some of us, old enough to remember, there’s a kind of collective, recollective scar that twitches to this day.

I have bookshelves full of titles on the Kennedys. Why?  I have, at times, obsessively immersed myself in their story. This is no mere ghoulish fascination but, rather, a futile attempt to connect with a hopeful yet desperate time. My friends know that if I could send myself back it would be to the year that I was 10 years old. 1963 was a watershed year. No one who lived through it does not carry a bit of its baggage in hand.

They sent us home from school early the day John F. Kennedy died. One minute I was tossing a basketball during recess..the next, we were all walking home at a very unfamiliar time of the afternoon. I remember coming through the front door to find that my mother was absolutely shattered. Shattered. I remember that she took me to a movie that same night (because she had promised to) and I will never forget that she sat there beside me quietly crying throughout the film. No ten-year old could truly understand what had just happened. But it didn’t matter because the impact had gone home. No child wants to see a parent in that kind of pain.

Five years passed.

Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed just few months before my mother succumbed to cancer in the Autumn of 1968. It was the worst year of my life. I often wonder, despite her devotion to her family, if my mother ever doubted the sanity of the world..ever wondered if it was still a place worth living in… as she lay in bed, at home, waiting for the end.

Many, many years later I travelled to Dallas. I was there to produce some television but when I swept open the drapes in my hotel room I found that I was looking directly down into Dealey Plaza. Director Oliver Stone had just finished production of his film JFK. The Texas School Book Depository sign, put back for the movie, still sat atop the building.

I dropped everything and told the cameraman that before we did anything..anything at all..we would have to walk into Dealey Plaza. This was not negotiable.

We approached up the sidewalk in the same direction as the fateful motorcade and I looked up at the window. You had to look at the window. There was a tangible, physical pull. And then we turned the corner at the intersection and it was all there. All of it….the freeway overpass, the railway fence, the grassy knoll, the spot where Abraham Zapruder had stood, camera in hand. I could have walked it blindfolded. And it was overwhelming. It was the strongest sense of deja vu I had ever experienced and will likely ever experience. We have all seen this place so many times, from so many angles, that it is impossible to believe you have not visited before.

The plaza was full of people..most of whom were standing alone in their thoughts. They lingered by the curb, right about the spot where they presumed the President took the fatal bullet. (There is a plaque to mark the location now.) People looked at the window and they looked at the knoll and their gaze drifted back again to the street. And then they did the same sequence all over again…like a choreographed observational ballet. Everyone, in their mind’s eye, was cycling through the various theories. Most of all though, people cried. Just silent streams of tears. They wept for a moment that no one really wanted to remember but most were helpless to ignore.

There is an extraordinary museum dedicated to this event on the sixth floor of the old building. It is the biggest tourist draw in the city of Dallas, which for many years did its best to fight the legacy. But the people who pour through the door are there because of a compulsion they can’t completely define. It has to do with who you were and what you became and how that notable family and its fate left both a public and personal mark. If you go to Dallas you will feel it too….the communal, cathartic revelation that occurred curb side in a flash frozen corner of the 20th century.

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3 Responses to “50 Years”

  1. You were correct, Dave–it would have been difficult to have written that any better. It’s difficult to really explain to those who are younger than us what the emotions of the time were like.

  2. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Only six years old at the time and living in England with my maternal grandparents I can clearly recall their sadness when hearing of John Kennedy’s death from the news report. I really couldn’t understand why they were so affected by the death of someone they didn’t know and who lived so far away. It was as if someone had announced that a close family member had died. I just didn’t get it. I do now. The Kennedys have such a mystique about them and Camelot lives on to this day. I think JFK and Lady Di are probably the two most loved human beings of our time. Great piece Dave.

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