This week, here in America, many of us are recognizing a moment in history when the course of our history changed. I know there are many such moments; times when the myriad possibilities that stretch before us solidify into the future path. However, if you were alive and well in the early 60s; the assassination of President Kennedy was more than a defining moment. It was a moment when the darker side of American existence pushed and shoved its way into the public eye. For better or worse, on that day, America did indeed “lose her innocence.”
At the urging of a friend I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s, 11/22/63. She opened a chat line on Facebook so that we could discuss our interpretations and feelings on the novel and that moment in history. My answer will be to post a link to this blog. For me, it was an all-consuming (whenever possible) read. You see, I was around and old enough to be cognizant all those many years ago.
King’s story is an exquisite adventure into time travel. I was completely drawn into his mental exercise of what the implications of time travel might be. How no matter how fervently we wish to change the past that change can cause repercussions we are even less happy with. No matter how hard we try to make sense of the horror or randomness of life’s pathways; there can be even more horrible consequences should we meddle.
Reading the story sent me on my own nostalgic trip. Using faithful and ever present Google I looked up the home that I lived in with my parents in 1963. It was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Interesting, the house is still green and the retaining wall we built is still there – at least it was when the street-level Google photo was taken. It took a bit more research but I finally found the elementary school I was attending and as soon as I saw the name I had a “George” moment: Whittier Elementary. A fairly sizable school within suitable walking distance of our home. No, I only walked uphill one way, but the winds of my youth were very, very cold (dress code demanded that girls wear skirts) and the snow could get rather deep in that part of the country. I also saw that my “short cut” was still there.
It was during our lunch time recess that there was an announcement on the PA system; we were having an emergency assembly. I remember filing into the auditorium with everyone else on that day and seeing our principal and most of the teaching staff on stage. Nearly all of them were in tears. With a breaking voice our principal informed us that our president had been assassinated. School was being closed, everyone was being sent home. If you did not have acceptable arrangements at home, please speak with your teacher. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll be fine. And I walked home.
I don’t remember when my parents got home, or what their specific responses were. I think my mother was deeply affected, I’m not really sure about my father. For me the world was suddenly something I heard down some tunnel we like to think of as reality. My home life was not a pleasant thing. Better than some, worse than others, but behind our walls some of that “innocence” of the day was most definitely cracked and pealed.
In the 60s child abuse was something that happened most often in the comfort of your own home (or educational institution) with hot chocolate and marshmallows. It wasn’t talked about. Any more than the performance of a drunken actress singing happy birthday to her own, very special president was talked about. America had won the war. We were healthy economically, on top of the world politically and our borders were secure. Our president had avoided nuclear war with an intense game of chess (or poker) and we were all breathing easier for the victory. Suddenly, that all shattered. For me it was truly personal because I had held a belief that “once I left home” I would be in control of my own life. The assassination of a controversial, but beloved president blew that vision into a million shards of star dust. Nowhere was safe. Absolutely nowhere.
I will, of course, never know what my journey might have been if I could have retained my belief in a safe America. An America where people somehow believed that rhetoric does not create real events, real impact. I say this because I firmly believe that at least part of the community guilt that Dallas suffered was due to the hot bed of racial and religious intolerance that was evident not too far below the surface if not quite frankly out in the open. King does an excellent job of describing our country in that age. The segregation, treatment of women, the slums, the real hatred that some held for our internationally renowned “leading couple.” There was a bubbling current of talk about how the man should be shot; he was nothing but a commie and he would surely lead us all into perdition; most assuredly if he made us live side by side with “those others.” I am sure there are many that thought good riddance; but there were others who felt just as guilty as if they had fired the shot themselves. The underbelly of America. Prejudice, poverty, fear for the future in a nuclear world. It was no longer possible to ignore it.
King, after researching the matter with the zeal of a writer, does not think there was a conspiracy. What feelings of “conspiracy” I have are limited to the opportunistic use of the event rather than any forethought or planning. Although I’m sure there was plenty of that going on. Of all of the work I have read myself on the subject, the best and most believable is Mortal Error: The Shot that Killed Kennedy by Bonar Mennings. It is the story of 25 years of research by a man named Howard Donahue. Donahue is a ballistics and gun expert and was involved in one of the many investigations that followed the event. It is a completely different take on the events of that day. Anything I say about the book will be a true spoiler. It was, for me, a bit of closure.
After 50 years, where does this story leave me? I have to say that it may have influenced my life more than I have previously acknowledged. I am an avid student of history. Not just the dates, events, names, and chronologies; I love to sort out the pieces and see if the trail of consequences leads me to some conclusion not obvious in the written record. What were the pivotal moments in history that caused kingdoms to rise or fall or individuals to become heroes or villains? Do the same circumstances in another place and time change the label of hero or villain; do they change the outcome?
The other part of that repercussion is my intense interest in philosophy and religion. Is life really random? Is there anything concrete we can depend on, or is it all a blind act of faith? Is there some hope that we can navigate our lives in such a way that our journey, and that of others that we touch, is somehow better and not destroyed in some small or great way?
That brings, me then, to my current work in progress. I think in my exploration of the life of Job and in the various interpretations of his story and his response I am going back to these fundamental questions. Why do such horrible things happen? Is there a plan, or only a vague path through the “lesser horror” and a hope for mitigation? What is the impact of “change,” when and if it is even possible? Perhaps you’d like to make the journey with me.