John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States, was assassinated 48 years ago on this date. My memory of that day, of the following weekend, is clearer than my recall of yesterday’s lunch.
Some small part of this phenomenon might be benign senile forgetfulness [jokes and insults at my expense expected, and welcomed]. But CRAFT syndrome, as it’s commonly known, explains, if anything, only the second half of the comparison. The vivid immediacy of November 22, 1963 in my mind’s eye is something else entirely.
For Americans of my age group (I was 13 at the time), the shocking murder of JFK is the seminal moment of our lives. That day irrevocably altered the way the world worked for us. In my opinion, every single one of the 17,532 days since then exists on the continuum that began that afternoon. What Pearl Harbor was for my parents’ generation, what 9/11 probably represents for more recent generations, 11/22/1963 was the “where were you when … ?” moment for me and my fellow Baby Boomers.
For the record, where I was was Heritage Junior High School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Along with the other members of the school band, I had just returned from outdoor practice — we were going to play at the next day’s high school football game, a contest that never happened — and was stowing my instrument when the principal informed us of the shooting over the PA system. The news was too much to process immediately, so we mostly sat in stunned silence. The school was on the far side of the township from my home, but I have no real memory of the long ride home with a passel of fellow adolescents in that yellow school bus. I do remember the weekend, as the whole family stared endlessly at the TV news reports. We watched the lying-in-state at the Capitol. We watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on Sunday. We watched the state funeral on Monday. We were in shock throughout.
We had made plans to spend Thanksgiving with relatives in the DC suburbs that year. It was a very somber holiday indeed. While there, we went to Arlington Cemetery to pay our respects to the President. On a bright, cold, and windy afternoon, we joined a long line of our fellow Americans, shuffling slowly and silently (except for the sobs) past the freshly-dug gravesite. It was so soon after the event that we had to carefully step over the eternal flame’s gas line, which had not yet been buried.
Over the years, I’ve written a number of November 22 essays on my blog, Peace Tree Farm. In addition to a version of the 2008 DailyKos diary linked above, they are: Forty years (2003), The end of the innocence (2004), and 43 … and 46 (2006).
For me, the death of JFK marks the day on which “The Sixties” began. The idea of a counterculture was inconceivable on November 21, all but inevitable on November 23. We can argue about when The Sixties ended (probably somewhere between the 1972 election and the first Rolling Stone article about disco, in September 1973), but I think it would be a real reach to put their birth anywhere other than the Kennedy assassination.