Monday, November 22, 2010

A Fading Memory of Camelot

This morning I came across an interesting column by Walter Shapiro, and his lead sentence grabbed me. “The answer - even though I have not been asked the question in perhaps 15 years - is high school chemistry class.” He is referring to the question so many of my generation and older have been asked over the years. Where were you when you heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas that fateful day 47 years ago?

I can no longer remember when I was last asked this question, but my answer was immediate and always the same. I was sitting in Mr. Ballard’s math class at David Millard Junior High School, in Asheville, North Carolina. The rumors and guessing began almost immediately. Was the story true? Had the President been wounded? Was he dead? We could not believe that the reports we were hearing were true. Soon enough we learned that they were. I was sitting in art class when the teacher left the room for a minute or two only to return with tears in her eyes. She did not have to tell us anything more. All of this was difficult for a 12 year old boy to fathom. What happens now? We were told to go home and be with our families.

Being in school when the news broke, I did not see Walter Cronkite sitting before the television camera that afternoon, taking his glasses on and off as he reported the events in Dallas that culminated in his choked up announcement that the young President was dead. It was a long, quiet walk to the downtown bus terminal on Pack Square. The streets and sidewalks were eerily vacant as the autumn leaves rustled in the breeze. When I arrived home I found my mother sitting before the televison set as Cronkite continued to describe what had happened. Dad eventually came home from work and for the next three days we watched as the United States and the world came to terms with the gravity of what had occurred in Dallas. Shapiro is correct when he says that the “memories of that terrible weekend are an inescapable part of who I am today.” They are impossible memories to erase.

The following spring I traveled with my class to the New York World’s Fair and on the way home to North Carolina we stopped for a two-day visit to Washington, DC. We visited all the monuments, but it was the trip across the Potomac River to Arlington Cemetery that remains clearest in my memory. There we filed pass Kennedy’s grave on a quiet hillside below the Custis-Lee Mansion. From there we had a panoramic view of city. The grave was not the massive marble plaza it is today. Then it was a simple mound of evergreen branches surrounding the Eternal Flame ignited the day he was buried and a lone bugler chirped a broken note during the playing of Taps. Just a few days ago I drove across Memorial Bridge, the one the funeral cortege used that day. The flame still flickers over the city at night.

It was Chaucer who suggested that time heals all wounds. It did not seem like one would ever recover from the events of November 22, 1963. But we have. The shining days of Camelot have been dimmed by the scrutiny of history and a succession of other tragedies that have awakened us to the dangerous and unpredictable times in which we live. Two generations have grown into adulthood and middle age since those black and white images greeted us on that late autumn weekend 47 years ago. Now we ask each other - “Where were you on September 11, 2001?”

Yet, for those of us who can remember where we were when we heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot and killed, we recognize to this very day that it was then we perhaps lost our innocence. Nothing would ever be the same again. This is something to reflect upon despite the passage of time and the dimming of memories.

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