To the editor:
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., in his novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” makes the following observation about time:
“All moments, past, present, and future, have always existed and always will … It is just an illusion we have that one moment follows another like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.”
That thought comes to mind as Thanksgiving approaches yet again, and many of us will share pleasant memories of families and food. We will all then sit down to table and probably eat more than any one person should. Some of us of a certain age will also reflect on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the week before Thanksgiving, because when the holiday itself arrived that year, it seemed that we had very little for which to be thankful.
Fifty-three years ago on that Friday, an entire generation lost its national innocence when the president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas. Everyone old enough to comprehend the awful news of that event remembers exactly where he or she was and what they were doing – a stopped time etched forever in memory.
The whole country, despite different political persuasions, was shocked at the unexpected vulnerability and violent death of one of the most closely guarded individuals in the world, and that realization had a very personal meaning as well – no one could be safe and secure when the head of the nation fell victim to an assassin’s bullet without warning or apparent reason. It was a feeling that a later generation could identify with after the events of 9/11, and a previous one learned from Pearl Harbor.
Of course, anyone cut down at the apogee of youth and promise evokes a sentiment of premature loss while at the same time preserving the moment and safeguarding it from disillusionment and possible disgrace. The poet A.E. Housman, in his “To An Athlete Dying Young,” expressed the feeling well:
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
The death of the president was especially shocking because no American chief executive had been killed in office since William McKinley in 1901, though there had been attempts on other presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and FDR. A stunned nation, after much radio and TV coverage, finally accepted the reality of the grim event, but by and large was unable to express itself in language. Speaking of the country’s loss and his own, Robert Kennedy quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus:
“In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
A short while later, he too would be felled by an assassin’s bullet, and the same words are now inscribed on his monument at Arlington National Cemetery, where his brother lies as well.
Some will recall that John Kennedy was elected by the barest of margins, and that much of his proposed legislation failed to pass; in addition, his administration was stigmatized by the abortive failure of the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Others will remember the decisive confrontation between JFK and Khrushchev known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since that time, disturbing facts have been revealed about Kennedy’s physical health and his extramarital affairs, tarnishing our recollection of him, and puzzling many by the apparent gap between private and public behavior.
He certainly was not perfect, sharing the flaws to which we are all subject and which we tend to tolerate least in our leaders. Nonetheless, his youthfulness, his wit, his vigor – above all his personal style – all combined to inspire many of his fellow citizens in a way that we have not seen since. His sudden death at the height of his powers and before his potential could be fulfilled was a watershed in our national consciousness, and it was clear that life itself would never be the same. Overnight, we became fearful, and we were all suddenly older beyond our years.
E.B. White, the author and New Yorker magazine writer who was a longtime resident of Brooklin on the Maine coast, spoke for many at the time who were wordless in their grief, using a metaphor of the sea, and creating an image now part of a world long changed but somehow still real and vital:
“When we think of him, he is without a hat, standing in the wind and the weather. He was impatient of topcoats and hats, preferring to be exposed, and he was young enough and tough enough to confront and to enjoy the cold and the wind of these times, whether the winds of nature or the winds of political circumstance and national danger … It can be said of him, as of few men in a like position, that he did not fear the weather, and did not trim his sails, but instead challenged the wind itself, to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.”
So as we celebrate Thanksgiving, even though it was not a national holiday until the mid-19th century, and even though there’s no record that turkey or pie or cranberries were served at the original meal, we will join in with most everyone else. But the thoughts of some may go back to 1963 when the world turned upside down, never completely to be righted again.