Fifty years ago today. Seems odd to say that, but live long enough and there you are, saying "Fifty years ago . . ."
The media will spend the day filled with remembrance of JFK's assassination. It was a generational, historical and transformational watermark, an act that in many ways symbolized and created the new era to come. There was Before, then there was After. And everything had changed, changed utterly.
I was attending Art Center School, in L.A. and had taken off a semester to work in the shipping department of U.S. Electrical Motors. (They made all kinds of electrical motors, from tiny submersible pumps, small motors of all kinds, up to behemoths that needed cranes to lift.) On that November day I was in the shipping office, typing away at the Bill of Lading desk, when one of the linemen came into the office and announced that the President had been shot.
In the stunned silence, one of my co-workers across the room, an older woman named Ruth, who was a self-declared political conservative and ill-disguised bigot, laughed out loud and clapped her hands and gleefully blurted out, "Thank God somebody finally killed that son of a bitch!"
In the absolute, utter shocked silence that followed her remark, all heads turned to look at her. She suddenly came to herself and realized what she had secretly felt was now out there in the room, in all its ugly, grotesque inappropriateness. Embarrassed, she hastily started a muddled back-pedaling, but it was too late. All of us in the room had heard what we had heard.
Ruth's remarks truly shocked me at the time. I didn't realize it then, but I had been given a glimpse into a strain of reactionary darkness that ran then and still runs through American politics. It's the bone deep racist, reactionary, paranoid, irrational hatred and malice, often hatred and malice for its own sake, that festers beyond reason, beyond policy, beyond politics or practical reality. Ruth's remarks were not some isolated oddity either. They would have been welcome in many areas of the country and certainly in enclaves of the unreconstructed South, a fact that had the Secret Service worried even as Kennedy's plane winged towards Dallas. It was a face I would see again and again as the years went by and the country was roiled with rapid change and it's reactionary counterpoint. It's a face I'm seeing now as our politics turns dangerously poisonous once again.
For the rest of it, as I had no TV, the ongoing, daily wall-to-wall visual coverage that many remember passed me by. I kept up with the news via newspaper, radio and Life Magazine, media that had none of the same visceral emotional impact that live TV must have had. It wasn't until much later, in TV re-runs or documentaries that I saw the many famous moments, after the fact -- Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses, Oswald being shot -- as "moving pictures." And all of those famous scenes were experienced later, in the cool of time passed rather than real-time. So my TV-less experience was very different, far less visceral from the way so many others experienced this event. Just how different it was became clear to me much later when I witnessed the Challenger disaster and 9/11 on TV, in real time.
But one thing that did remain in my memory of that time was the feeling of just how wrong this act was, how utterly wrong it all was. I suspect the unease I felt was because I was beginning to understand just what the underlying message of that killing was. This, Oswald's bullet seemed to say, This is how I negate all that this country stands for. This is how easily I can change your rules, change your government, change your life, change your history. This is the New Rule, Baby. This is your future.
Fifty years ago today. There was Before. There was After. It's a long time gone. Yet not gone at all.