“John, we hardly knew ye….”

Kennedy motorcade

My generation is the last who have any possibility of holding that day in conscious living memory.

If my mind doesn’t fail me over the past 50 years, I remember being with my mother in Battle Creek on that day in 1963, when the world changed under our feet.  I seem to recall her buying a copy of the local newspaper, the Enquirer and News, from someone; it would have been an early edition of the afternoon paper, probably an extra.  That’s where the memory of that specific day ends, and I’m more inclined to believe that it’s something crufted together by my mind from bits and pieces, especially after seeing the calendar for November 1963.  The 22nd was a week before Thanksgiving, and I wouldn’t have been home from school yet on that day.  All I know for certain sure is that the rest of the weekend was messed up for a 5-year-old who was too young to understand death and what the country had been plunged into.  I wanted my Saturday cartoons, but none could be found on any of the four television channels from two networks available to us back then, and I was pissed.  Not that it would have mattered, for Mom and Dad would have told me to, effectively, suck it up and shut up.  There were more important things going on that weekend than humoring a bored 5-year-old girl.

November 22, 1963 has been dissected by historians, novelists, politicians, screenwriters and crackpots ever since the shock of that day wore off some.  Many have wondered, of course, how different this country would have been had Kennedy survived and been re-elected to a second term.  In the spate of new books come out in the past months, one writer, Jeff Greenfield, has taken this on with If Kennedy Lived, working with known writings and reasoned extrapolation to paint an alternative history of a perhaps more peaceful time.  Hundreds of books and perhaps a petabyte or two of Web space are devoted to offering up “proofs” of conspiracy theories concerning the identity of the assassin(s).  (For a time, I believed in conspiracy as well.  Taking more looks at it over time, I pull back to only Lee Oswald as the lone shooter.)  Much more will, no doubt, be written for some time to come on the matter, until that day drops back into a smaller place in the larger scheme of American and world history.

Why does it still fascinate us, fifty years after the day?  Because it was one of the watershed moments that gets burned into the national psyche, as most days of disaster are.  There are still 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds who can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor; closer to living memory, how many of us alive today don’t recall what we were doing when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center in 2001?  On top of this, it was a stupid, senseless thing; nobody in their right mind wants to kill the leader of a country, even if they disagree violently with the leader’s policies (unless said leader is a dictator).  The Kennedy assassination showed that even the greatest of us was vulnerable to the whims of the world.  It makes no sense in an orderly mind that something like this could happen, and we seek sensible answers to explain it all.  Thus the desire to seek proofs of conspiracy.  But, as later killings have shown, it doesn’t take a grand plot to overthrow the government to shoot the great; all it takes is a diseased mind (James Earl Ray; Sirhan Sirhan; Squeaky Fromme; Sara Jane Moore; John Hinckley, Jr.; Arthur Bremer).

If Kennedy had survived, it’s almost a psychological certainty that he would have been re-elected to another term.  Not a mathematical one, but a definite possibility, based on the way people often react to such matters.  (How many people would not have voted against a man who survived an attempt on his life?)  But in reality, John Kennedy did not survive, and thus did the secular cult of Saint John arise, preserving his legacy and promoting his excellences as a statesman.  As years have passed, some of the lustre has been smoothed off from the repeated kissing of the saint’s statue’s feet; we now know about his womanizing and the true extent of his illnesses, especially the form of Addison’s disease that came close to killing him twice before the three bullets.  (Greenfield speculates that he would have been in a wheelchair due to his famous back problems in the last year of his presidency, at least when he wasn’t in the public view.)  But still we see the man who forced the Soviet Union to back down during the “Missiles of October,” and then achieved the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.  We remember the young, golden-skinned man who won the country’s attention in 1960 and then was never given a chance to get to the true status of a senior statesman.  Perhaps that’s the way it’ll always be….

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Posted November 21, 2013 by Harper Ganesvoort in History, Real Life

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