Friday, November 22, 2013

Where I Was Fifty Years Ago Today

I was among the living but not glued to the television set like the adult world around me was on this day fifty years ago. I was just a year old, so I can’t claim that I remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and its immediate aftermath. I know that’s not possible. Still, I feel like I was not only there in my Bronx home, but aware as well, because I heard so much through the years, particularly as an impressionable youth, about those dark days in November 1963. 

As was the norm, my father headed off to work that Friday afternoon for his four-to-midnight shift at the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station. He typically left the house between 2:15 and 2:30 and hopped on the Number 1 train to mid-town Manhattan; it’s something he did for twenty-five years. Mrs. Harvey, a neighbor from up the street, alerted him on his way out that the president had been shot. He continued, though, on his way to the job. Upon his arrival, the word was out that the shooting had been fatal. My father remembered with disgust—and he was a staunch Republican all his life—more than a few of his co-workers concerned, foremost, about the possibility of getting Monday off for the president’s state funeral.
           
For many years my father accumulated a box load of newspapers—ones that he had put aside because of their historical significance, including the New York Daily News edition with a front-page headline that read: “Kennedy Assassinated.” The picture that accompanied it was of Lyndon Johnson standing alongside a dazed Jackie Kennedy. I recall thumbing through that paper years later and being both intrigued and a little unnerved by it. As a boy, what I most found fascinating when poring over this old paper was how this earth-shattering and tragic news story commingled with mundane articles and advertisements, which were obviously slated to run in the paper prior to the assassination. This notable dichotomy somehow spoke volumes to me—how life goes on no matter what happens. Despite contemplating a cancellation, Macy’s soldiered on with their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade the following Thursday, but the talk on that day of thanks and turkey was mostly of the week that everyone had just lived through and hoped they would never, ever again have to relive.

I’ve been watching some of the retrospective news coverage concerning the assassination anniversary. Again, I’ve been at once intrigued and a little bit unnerved. The contrast of the Abraham Zapruder 8mm silent color footage and the black-and-white videotaped news coverage is compelling and eerie at the same time—from a simpler technological age. Jack Ruby leaping out of the crowd to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach is surreal.

Times have certainly changed. America has changed and so has the world we live in—and not for the better on many fronts. People on the streets in November 1963 just couldn’t believe what had happened; they couldn’t conceive of a reason why somebody—anybody—would commit such a heinous act. Now, fifty years later, we know better. We’re all too aware there are countless fanatics and nut jobs just waiting for an opportunity to do harm—and the more destruction the better. So, while we’re still shocked when these horrible acts occur these five decades later, we’re not surprised anymore. And that’s the sad reality of life a half-century after the JFK assassination—shocked but not surprised has been ingrained in us.

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