Friday in November 50 years ago my world went haywire. Everyone’s in fact, though I was by far the most aggrieved — or so I thought. On a post-Thanksgiving Friday in 1963 I was darting around the basement TV section of a local department store when all the screens flashed a strange black pattern I’d never seen before. BULLETIN. Salesmen and customers gathered in a semicircular clump around the unsold sets. Some gasped. My mother clutched my hand and pulled me closer.
My first (and annoyed) response was to stand still.
My second was to tug at my mother’s hand. I wanted to leave. I was bored. She clutched back at my hand, hard, and continued to watch.
My third response emphasized my second. Finally, she wheeled and slapped me, leaving me stunned. We then stood together on the up escalator. I began howling until I saw she was sobbing.
“They shot the president,” she said in her accented English.
“I don’t care,” was my reply.
The self-involved universe most 10-year-olds inhabit is Ptolemaic to the core. All rotates around them. But living in a concave shell is not always easy. The universe can seem chock with bewildering adult conspiracies.
At home, my mother and father camped out in front of the red Motorola television set, speaking in whispers if they spoke at all, and not to me. I heard mention of Dallas, of Kennedy, of Johnson, of a sniper. Faces were ashen, the opposite of stimulation. Hyperbole was limited.
I finally told my father I’d had enough. A sensible man (unlike a mother) would surely understand my predicament. But his nostrils flared like those of a wounded animal. “The president of the United States has been assassinated. Do you understand?”
I did and did not. I went to the basement to play with my model Spitfires and Messerschmitts. I turned on my road race set. I thought to myself, “Why is one president more important than another?” then, “There will be more presidents,” and finally, mildly mature, “Why?”
Fifty years later I confess I have never seen two people more quietly devastated than my mother and father in those few days (September 11 was, by contrast, a loudly emotional public thicket). An upheaval they thought they’d left behind, memories of world war, the Kennedy killing reignited. Their grief dredged up cumulative sadness the mere presence of Kennedy had briefly papered over, a melancholy born of something deeper than American history itself.
Later, before my eyes, came the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, a chaotic and absurd event that later reality programming would have envied — jittery, passionate images of muffled loudness. But the home front mood remained morose, so much so that whole dinners passed in silence.
What I most looked forward to as relief from the adult shock of the Friday assassination and its aftermath was Sunday morning, believing the cartoon silliness of Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner, Rocky and Bullwinkle would bring me solace.
But the cartoons were pre-empted. I complained bitterly and finally began crying. Why was my life being made so miserable? Why couldn’t I just have what I wanted? Who cared about the president? Not surprisingly, I was exiled to my room and instructed to stay there until further notice, or until I grew up, which I told both my parents I had no intention of doing, ever.
Any room is a prison cell after hours of moping. I began hatching a plan. I’d go downstairs and pretend to sympathize until I earned my parents’ trust and they’d let me go out and play. So down I went, and I watched, and watched, as men spoke and processions passed, and face upon face suggested incomparable sadness, until I, too, became sad.
And then I began to listen, if just a little, and see the face, Kennedy’s face, and his smile, which I’d always liked. I heard stories about his past and remembrances by eloquent people who said what they said with ageless, often moving sincerity. I began slowly to understand the reason for the fuss, or the mess, through a 10-year-old’s simple process of subtraction: someone many people liked was now gone, wrongly and unexpectedly, and even adults, the managers of the real world, the ultimate repairers, could do nothing to fix the damage. They were helpless in fact, as they often are. I did not know that then.
I understood the complication better on Monday, when I boarded the local bus — two stops to school — as always driven by the ever-chipper Mr. Miller, who that day was not. “Are you all right, boy,” he asked me, and I nodded. “Terrible shame, boy. Terrible shame, and mark my words, you’re just a very young man, but you’ll remember what’s happened for all your life, even if it’s the wrong kind of remembering. Everyone will.”
Mr. Miller was right.