There is a dividing line in my American generation. Placement on either side is an accident of your moment of birth. The younger cohort never completely comprehends why the memory is so powerfully meaningful. On my side each of us recalls exactly where he or she was when we heard. Vividly, unerringly, precisely, with no equivocation. I write, of course, about the Kennedy assassination—a violent act from which I have been attempting to extract meaning since I was eight years old.
If there is one undergirding theme in my fiction—in The Navigator and in the new novel on which I am now working—it’s this: The past is never really the past, even if it’s not your own past. The meaning of the past can come only from story, from narrative, from expression. I have five stories to share that illustrate my reluctant obsession of a half-century.
I am a fourth grader at Miller Heights Elementary School in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania. I am standing in the back of Joe Garbush’s fourth grade classroom, near the door. It is almost afternoon recess. Nan Watt, the school secretary, bursts in—she has never done this before—and she is distraught, barely contained, her eyes wildly searching for the teacher. She is about six feet away from me. Four words. I still remember the contraction: “The President’s been shot!” She moves on quickly, presumably to the next classroom. We all return to our seats and say not much of anything. The recess bell rings. We put on our coats and file out, all but two girls—I recall exactly who they were, but shall not identify them here. They sit at their desks, crying silently. We tough guys walk around the playground subdued, talking, speculating. We return early as the intercom system, crackly, broadcasts the news. President Kennedy is dead. “Sit and listen,” our teacher says. We comply. I did not know it then, but The Sixties began on that day.
On Sunday, November 24, 1963 I go to church with my family, which includes my maternal grandmother, born into near-medieval poverty in Hungary in 1892. The homily for the dead President by our Lutheran pastor is delivered both in English and Hungarian. Years later my mother will recall that his message never made mention of the President’s Roman Catholic faith. We return home. I turn on the television, a vertical black and white Philco console, for my grandmother and me to watch together. The middle generation, my parents and a collection of uncles and aunts, is conversing quietly in the kitchen. My mother tends my brother, a toddler not yet three years old. This is where we are when my grandmother and I watch Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live TV. It is the second time in my young life that I see a man die violently in person, in real time. It will not be the last.
For Christmas in 1963 among my presents is a fat commemorative comic book, “Giant Christmas Issue . . . Dennis the Menace—Dennis in the Christmas City,” Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I show it to my cousin Patricia. The plot of the comic has Dennis mail ordering a collection of outrageous, extravagantly expensive gifts—including an elephant—from the Neiman-Marcus catalog. The stuff is shipped to Bethlehem from Dallas. When Pat reads this, her eyes well up. “Dallas!” she yelps. “I never want to go there, and I don’t ever want to hear about that awful place in my whole life.” She is eleven years old. This is an age when you absorb and sometimes say things that your family expresses privately. Much later in life I realize how powerfully pervasive that her sentiment was and how long it took Dallas to transcend.
In the early summer of 1964 we visit my uncle and his family in Washington. On our first day there we go to Arlington National Cemetery to Kennedy’s temporary gravesite. It is spare, noble, square-rimmed by a white picket fence. My father and his brother are silent. So am I. About 20 or 30 people stand there, all uprightly reverent. In the decades that follow I move here myself and return to Arlington often—an obligation that goes with the territory of military service. I have a lot of friends there now. On my most recent trip I make it a point to walked around the permanent Kennedy gravesite. I turn my back on the raucous chatty tourists, as furious at their behavior as I am at the loss of the dignity I experienced sixty yards away in 1964.
In 1984 in Boston I get to know Dave Powers, maybe Kennedy’s closest friend and certainly his fixer. He’s running the Kennedy Library out on Columbia Point in Dorchester. I’m a graduate student researching the Kennedy presidency. I don’t dare ask him about Dallas, even when our conversations inevitably turn to the meaning of Jack Kennedy. Powers was riding in the motorcade in the car immediately behind JFK and is in the Zapruder film. Once I say to him—trying to be sensitive but coming across, I’m sure, with fairly meaningless rhetorical flourish—”You still really miss him, don’t you?” Powers pauses, genuine emotion rising as he replies, “Every day, Mike. Every single day of my life.”
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, real time, 2013, this weekend. My grown children, 30 and 25, are with Barbara and me. The kids are remarking about the waves of fiftieth anniversary coverage of the Kennedy assassination. So I tell these stories and others. I explain how the conspiracy theories give cognitive comfort to the seemingly inexplicable then and now—a loser like Oswald, who even failed at being a communist, murdering our President. I wax on about a different, simpler age, my past gone but ingrained, an America one-third the size of our nation today, in a political landscape of friction and compromise, not hatred and recalcitrance. They understand . . . and then again, they don’t.
The event’s meaning was more than Kennedy, more than our loss of American innocence. It was the one moment during which we last held our national emotions undiffused, together as one.
Yes. Oswald acted alone.