Friday, November 22, 2013

Yes, I do remember where I was 50 years ago today...

I really hadn't planned on writing about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy today.

I understand the point of commemorating the day. It has, after all, been 50 years, and we seem to pay special attention of anniversaries with a 0 behind them. And, the truth is that there are a whole lot of people who weren't alive yet then and it's a good thing that they get connected with this horrible part of history, especially considering that a lot changed on that Friday in Dallas. But the further truth is that all of the extensive coverage today and in the past couple of weeks has been disturbing to me.

This is because I remember that day very well, although I was just seven years old and in the second grade. It was the day I learned that bad things can happen and that the world isn't always a nice place.

I guess being that old when I discovered this means that I lived a blessed, or at least a lucky, life that I hadn't learned that before. Then again, it was a different world then, a different culture, and kids got to get to be kids for a lot longer than many kids get to do today.

The thing is, if you were alive and aware of the world around you, you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you learned that JFK had been killed. It's one of those historical touchstones, like remembering where you were on 9/11. I was in school on November 22, 1963. Mrs. Wiseman, my teacher, told the class that the president had been shot and was dead. And then she said that she didn't care what the Supreme Court had said, we were going to have a prayer for the president's family. And we did. It had only been recently that the Supreme Court had ruled that teacher-led prayer in public schools was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. As far as I know, she didn't get in any trouble for leading that prayer.

But it isn't just that day that we are commemorating today. We are, in a very real sense, I think, also recognizing that the death of John F. Kennedy also meant the death of trust - of the government and of each other. The whole distrust of the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nut and not involved in any sort of conspiracy to kill the president set up a situation that gave birth to and nurtured the life of countless conspiracy theories about who really shot Kennedy. That environment, in turn, made it much easier for other sorts of conspiracy theories to gain publicity and adherents.

I have to admit that I'm fascinated with the conspiracy theories that surround JFK's assassination. This is not to say that I buy any of them. Some of them are clearly just stupid. Others provide more to think about, and I cannot say that I am completely convinced that there wasn't a conspiracy. Even if there was, though, I'm mostly convinced that we will never know the truth for sure. Some of the conspiracy theorists are slightly frightening in their intensity, and many of them appear to be just plain obsessed. On the other hand, it doesn't help the lone assassin theorists that many of them tend to be just as obsessed and intense, to the point that sometimes it is hard to believe that they aren't engaged in some sort of effort to hide...something.

But, then, that is part of what the JFK assassination and its aftermath bought our culture: suspicion of everything and everyone. "Don't trust anyone over thirty," the mantra of the Sixties hippies turned, in the Seventies, into "Don't trust anybody," full stop. This might be the thing I most dislike about contemporary American culture.

To be honest, I believe that the Sixties as a cultural period didn't properly start until 11/22/63. The time before that was really an extension of the Fifties. I saw a headline this morning that implied that if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, The Beatles would not have had the impact that they did when the came to the United States the following February. I didn't read the article attached to the headline, so I don't know what the writer's take was, but I can see that such an argument is there to be made, not so much that the band's music wouldn't have become popular, but certainly that the climate wouldn't have been right for the huge impact that The Beatles had culturally.

But, in truth, we can't know that, just like we can't know how things would have been different politically or historically had Kennedy not been killed. There is certainly speculation, not only from scholars but from writers who specialize in novels and short stories about alternate history. I suspect that "had Kennedy lived" alternate histories run a close second to alternative histories about what would have happened if the Axis rather than the Allies had won World War II. We can speculate all day long, but we can never know that for sure, either.

I'm sure we'll here plenty more about JFK's death in the next day or so. Kids in school today, and even some adults who were not yet born in 1963, will be mystified about why everyone is making such a big deal about something that happened 50 years ago. But for those of us who were already around and thinking about the world at all at the time, it is probably inevitable that we will all go through another round of "Where were you when...?"

Inevitable, yes, but uncomfortable for some of us, who were very young but who do remember.

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