Saturday, November 22, 2008

Forty-five years

Like most of the people in my generation, I can remember where I was when I first learned of President Kennedy's assassination. For me it was outside the cafeteria at Madison Junior High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wasn't having an easy time in seventh grade, and the announcement of this catastrophe didn't make it any better. When it was time to go to math class, which met in one of the many barracks-classrooms erected to house the overflow of students of the postwar baby boom, I learned a little more.

I don't remember the teacher's name. I wasn't good at math, and this teacher wasn't my favorite. She had once confiscated a little doodle I made--spacemen getting out of a flying saucer while people all around ignored them--and sent it to the counselor, who decided it was a clear sign of serious emotional problems. That day she tried to calm students down, giving us in somber tones the facts as she knew them. At one pont a girl asked if Kennedy had been shot "with a rifle or a gun," causing some titters, and easing the tension. But the teacher berated the titterers and brought the tension level back up.

Mercifully, Albuquerque Public Schools decided to dismiss students before math class was over. I watched the coverage of the assassination, and the funeral, on our black-and-white TV. The news commentators referred to the new president by his full name--Lyndon Baines Johnson--which prompted my father to say that he hoped they'd stop using the Baines.

I was eleven that year, and turned twelve at the end of November. (Being a year younger than most of my classmates surely exacerbated my problems in junior high.) For me, the Kennedy assassination was tied in with sad events in my personal and family life. I had been a top student in sixth grade, but ended up with three Ds on my report card that semester. I probably would have received them had there not been an assassination, but the shock of Kennedy's death did affect my studies. My father, at a loss to know what to do , spanked me for the 3-D report card. I resented it for a long time, and fantsized about running away, escaping to the Midwest, where the world seemed more civilized.

The next year, my parents sent me to the Albuquerque Academy, where I did much better. I wasn't fantasizing about running away, but my dreams of returning to the Midwest came true, though not in the best way.

For this was also a time when my parents' marriage was deteriorating. I must have sensed it emotionally, if not intellectually. My brother, four years younger, sensed it better than I. When our mother asked him if he knew what a divorce was, he said, it was when you got "unmarried." "You're going to get one," he immediately added.

The divorce took place in the summer of 1965. My mother, brother, and I moved to Iowa City, wher she worked on a Master of Fine Arts and eventually began working for Paul Engle, who was then in charge of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

All of this turmoil in my own life, and that of my family, took place in the aftermath of that terrible day in November, forty-five years ago. I'm sure I would be a different person--perhaps less fatalistic and more self-confident--had Oswald's bullet missed the president.

On January 20 of next year, we shall, for the first time in forty-five years, have a young, attractive, energetic, optimistic, and progressive president. let us hope and pray that he is able to serve his term and be re-elected in 2012. For the sake of our nation and of all the people, at home and abroad, who have put so much hope in him, I pray that Barack Obama has a long and successful presidency.


Charles Gramlich said...

I remember even more clearly the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It was the first time I saw my father cry.

Lisa said...

Can it be 45 years? This is a great piece, Steve and I think a lot of us are thinking the same quiet, hopeful thoughts.

steve said...

Charles--You're a few years younger. While I remember the assassinations of 1968, that whole year was such a blur of hope and despair, beginning with the Tet Offensive (despair) and Gene McCarthy's near-defeat of LBJ in New Hampshire (hope) and ending with Nixon's election. Two assassinations and Nixon's triumph made it mainly despair, though

Lisa--I'm afraid it was. I'm very much hopeful. And I think the Secret Service cannot help being more vigilant.

Elizabeth said...

Amen to all that, Steve. So be it. I was born two months before the Kennedy assassination but feel like it's colored my whole life, and the lives of all those born that year. We sort of grew up in chaos and I can't remember ever being truly excited, like I am now about a leader. I have always been a big Bill Clinton fan, but in a schoolgirl-crush sort of way, sad to say. Despite all the bad news one reads daily, I'm actually looking forward to the future...

Ropi said...

I may have been an erotic thought in my almost 3 years old mother's thoughts. :P

Julie said...

Hard times, Steve; here's to a brighter future. I remember the shooting - broke into one of the favourite evening viewing programmes of the time.

Thanks for the comment on the photos on mine - I'd switched the camera onto a higher resolution and forgot about it; we use 'vicar' as common parlance - takes too long to explain the free church connection!

steve said...

I'll try again--Blogger wiped out the comments in my own blog.

Eliabeth--Bill Clinton spoke at my daughter Sarah's gratuation from Knox College in 2007. He was impressive. Have you read Midnight's Children? It's the only Salman Rushdie book I've read, but your comment about the assassination's effect on people born in 1963 makes me think of book and the magical effect of being born at the stroke of India's independence.

Ropi--Don't rub it in. I'll be 57 on the 30th, and even my 55-year-old wife (she looks 15 years younger)thinks that's old.

Julie--JFK was popular worldwide. And there hadn't been a president murdered since 1901, so people were in shock.

As for "vicar," that makes sense. Here in the States, a vicar is a C of E priest. Even in the U.S. Episcopal church, the priest in charge of a parish is the rector. Only in mission parishes is there a vicar.

Anonymous said...

I've never been able to understand the "where I was when Kennedy died" thing. What possible significance is there to that? Then again, I am just befuddled by the little funerary/memorial displays people put by the sides of roads where their loved ones died. Mostly crosses of course. I grieve like anyone for the lost, but it does not resonate with me that the place of death means anything.

But that's just me.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

This piece is just. . . wow.

Junior high is a terrible time.

Tea N. Crumpet said... Check this out-- you'll love it!

steve said...

Gerry, you're an original if there ever was one.

Tea, I agree. My son Jim mamaged to have a pretty good time in junior high, (middle school in Elkhart)but my daughters were, for the most part, miserable.

I'll check out the YouTube as soon as I get back to Elkhart and DSL,

Danette Haworth said...

My parents are divorced, too, and it was painful for us kids. What they didn't realize, I guess, is that parents don't get divorced--the whole family does.

In any case, thank you for FIERY! And right by my error post! Fiery is now fixed, thanks to you!

steve said...

Danette--Thank you. Strangely enough, my parents realized that the divorce would affect all of us. But somehow their efforts didn't help a lot.

A few years ago, when I was working in Philadelphia but wanted to get back to Indiana, I interviewed for a copy editor's job at the Elkhart Truth. I missed "fiery" in the basic pre-interview test. While I did better than most people on the test, I was lucky not to have gotten the job, given the plight of newspapers in general.