I don’t usually blog about current events or the big social issues of our lives, but today is a special day for me and for all of us of a certain age. You young-uns just cannot imagine what a shocking event the assassination of President Kennedy was on November 22, 50 years ago today. It ripped a hole in the world we had grown up in.
Like any boomer, I can recall the events as if it were yesterday. I was living in Mexico City – my step-dad was a foreign service officer – and walking home from my funny little school called Edron Academy, after a day of 8th grade project work. (Why was it called Edron? It was found by Ed Foulkes and Ron I-can’t-recall-his-last-name – Ed-ron.) My walk took me past little stores that sold fruits and vegetables, ice cream and snacks. And in all of them, instead of the usual love songs or mariachi music on the radios there was sad music and a constant voice saying, in Spanish, our condolences to the American people on this very sad day, for this terrible event, etc.
I raced home, opened the door and yelled to my mother: Mom, mom, the President has died, he has been killed. What, no, it can’t be, you must have misheard the Spanish, she said. No, I insisted, all the radios were saying it over and over; call dad at the embassy. She did – and turned as white as a sheet.
We turned on our black and white TV and there was a feed from the US. I felt sick to my stomach, and I wasn’t really sure why. And my mother was very agitated, rare for her, which was disturbing to a 13-year-old boy. Like so many of her generation she found Jack and Jackie a wonderful breath of fresh air for the glamour and sophistication the Kennedys brought to public life. The shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby shortly after was like a bad dream: how could this happen in America?
My parents tell the story of a fancy dinner party they went to a week later, hosted by a very wealthy and influential Mexican politician. In addition to my parents and some other Embassy officials, the head of a US bank in Mexico was also invited. Just as dinner was being served, the host said how terrible it was that the President was killed, and the banker sneered – heh, no loss there; glad he was shot. My step-father grabbed my mother, stood up, and announced that they could not stay in the face of such dreadful un-American talk, and walked out.
It’s hard for people today to understand how simple and naive those times of the early 60s were (though the early Beach boys songs capture it well); it’s hard to appreciate the chaos that was unleashed from those gun shots until the early 70s. None of us who lived through it can forget it. The veneer of civilization never seemed so thin as it did that day 50 years ago (and during the next 10 years, culminating in Kent State, Nixon’s resignation, and the end of the Vietnam war.) It’s the difference between Sandlot and Dead Poet’s Society vs. Apocalypse Now and Clockwork Orange.
I have two musical traditions in November. Every Thanksgiving, I play Alice’s Restaurant in its entirety, and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination I play Abraham, Martin and John by Dion. I laugh and cry, respectively, each time. Today and next week will be no different, but there will be a special bittersweetness to it this year.