I briefly wondered whether I was dreaming. I changed the channel. More sober faces saying the same thing; a motorcade; a hospital; hope.
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I was six years old when I learned the word “assassination.” It was a long word for a second-grader, with a menacing hiss to it. A peculiar word, ugly and disturbing, it lodged itself in my vocabulary.
Ask how old I was when I learned any other word — from ma-ma to antidisestablishmentarianism — and I couldn’t tell you. But I know assassination down precisely to the day: November 22, 1963. A day the world as I knew it grew a shade darker, permanently.
I was home that Friday afternoon, sick with one of my frequent colds — bored and shiftless, lying on the couch watching our black-and-white TV sideways, which always gave me a headache. I was half asleep when the program was interrupted and a newsman I didn’t recognize announced that the president had been shot in Dallas, Texas.
I briefly wondered whether I was dreaming. I changed the channel. More sober faces saying the same thing; a motorcade; a hospital; hope. An only child of two working parents, I was home alone. I didn’t cry. I didn’t move.
A couple hours later, my father came home from work — early, grim. Then my mother, who was an NYPD policewoman at the time. By that hour, the death of President John F. Kennedy had been confirmed; the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (a memorable, almost poetic name), arrested; and sketchy details were emerging: head wound, Book Depository, loner, Connally, Tippit, Jackie, Johnson. I asked my mother — who, before joining the NYPD, had been one of the country’s first electroencephalography technicians — what a medulla oblongata was. The other new word I learned that day.
What does a six-year-old perceive? William Faulkner would try his hand at it with Vardaman (“My mother is a fish”) in As I Lay Dying, and again in the “Benjy” section of The Sound and the Fury, but, casting back, it’s a challenge for me to strip away my own accretion of 60 years of knowledge and perspective and recall with precision just how it felt to take it all in on that mild autumn afternoon.
Context is critical to comprehension. The only things that had ever died were my two little turtles (overfed), a bunch of cartoon characters (and they all came magically back to life), and the occasional cowboy or Indian (but I knew that was make-believe). Death — certainly violent death, assassination — was nowhere to be found in my books.
And now, of a sudden, in the “real” world, a bullet tore through a human brain (unimaginable) and, just like that, a life was done, over. And not just a life, the life of the world’s most powerful man, revered in our family, a living repository of hope for a better future, a better world. A symbol of everything new and good. Shot. In the head. Dead. Gone.
No Ford’s Theatre. No Sarajevo. No Hiroshima. No Holocaust. No context in my consciousness. Nowhere to place this terrible thing. Not yet. I took to my rocking chair and, for hours, rocked.
What did it feel like to have a bullet tear through your brain? What did it feel like to be helplessly bleeding, dying? What did it feel like to be his wife, his children? What did it feel like to aim and pull a trigger? What did it mean that anyone could hate (for so it was said) enough to do that? What did it mean that a great man, our president, had no power, no defense against…?
Was the reality, hidden till that day, that it was an assassin’s world? A dangerous world? A terrible world?
The next day, Saturday — 60 years ago today — our shades were drawn and our Bronx apartment was, literally, dark. As always, I wanted to go out and play, but that was out of the question. The world, when I peeked through a curtain crack, seemed bright enough — to the eye. Day always follows night and the sun knows nothing of human affairs; the stars shine alike on triumph and tragedy.
On Sunday, Oswald, in police custody, was murdered by Jack Ruby (yet another poetic name), who was described as an enraged patriot. He would be tried and convicted, sentenced to death, awarded a new trial, then succumb to an unreported cancer a few months after that. In later years I saw the photo of Oswald twisting away an instant before the close-range shot was fired and I recognized something universal in that cringe, something I knew myself, the reflexive mode and shape of self-protection. But that day, already, it all seemed just a little too neat, even to a six-year-old. Something said to be wary about the world and its stories.
I’ve never been much of a student of the Kennedy assassination, or of those that followed in what, on a historical scale, was quick succession: MLK, RFK, Malcolm X. But I grew to adulthood under this cloud: To be good was to be dangerous; to be dangerous was to be endangered.
For all that has been good, all that has been achieved in the decades since, there seemed a clear slant to the world, an implacable anti-heroic force and will. Possibilities snuffed out, hopes defeated. If the music didn’t quite die that day, it modulated abruptly into a minor key. What might have been gleams, forever lost beyond recovery or redemption.
I’m aware of the risk here of standard-issue perpetual elegy, but this in fact has been my life’s observation and experience as an American, what Bruce Springsteen once called “a downbound train.”
It didn’t begin with JFK, but November 22 was a razor-sharp point of inflection. The shades that were drawn the next day ushered in a darker world, a place where you had to be more careful.
When my uncle — our extended family’s jovial social linchpin — took his own life a little over a year later, the world (my world) got darker still, and still less dependable. Two good men, in their prime. The message felt recursive: To be good was no guarantee.
We all, even the luckiest and most protected among us, encounter death in our lives. Sooner, later. Our nation, our planet too, are, without question, violent and mortal. Loss of innocence is inevitable in the observer. And — it would seem, scanning from 1963 to 2023 — in the observed.
We have our defenses, our illusions, our tricks, our resilience. We soldier on. We do not go gentle.
Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.