Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Defining Moment

November 22, 1963. The day the world changed.

Those of us who lived through it remember where we were and what we were doing. It was Friday, and I was in school. The principal announced the news over the intercom: "President Kennedy has been shot. He is dead." The schools closed for the rest of the day. I was 2 weeks away from 7 years old. On that Friday afternoon and in the days that followed, I grew up a lot. A lot of us lost our innocence that day.

Small-town life in the Deep South was slow and easy in those days. We watched the world go by and minded our own business. Nobody bothered us, though we did hate the Commies and practiced our duck-and-cover drills religiously. Still, life was good. Vietname was still a word that only a few knew and even fewer cared about. The economy was good. Maybe we didn't have as much as people in other parts of the country, but we had enough--enough to eat, clothes to wear, cars to drive. We didn't lock our doors--we knew everybody that came by.

Then our President, the most powerful man in the world, a man we adored, handsome, charismatic, with a beautiful wife and children, a man we loved, was shot down in the street like a rabid dog. Suddenly, the world was no longer a friendly place. A nut with a gun could be hiding anywhere. Nowhere was safe. Dread, suspicion, and paranoia gradually became a way of life.

One symbol sums that time up for me. In President Kennedy's funeral procession was a beautiful black horse led by a Marine. Its saddle was empty, but a pair of empty cavalry boots sat backwards in the stirrups. That horse did not want the duty it was called upon to perform. It high-stepped and tugged at the reins, occasionally trying to rear up. It wanted to run. It wanted to be happy and carefree, but the slow beat of the drums demanded its obedience and reminded it of the solemn weight it carried, if only symbollically.

The memory of that horse always brings tears to my eyes, as it did that day in 1963 when I lay on the floor in our living room watching the procession live in flickering black and white. I knew then and know now how that horse felt. I, too, wanted to be carefree and innocent again. I wanted to feel the air through my hair and the grass under my feet and never imagine the dark, black weight of murder and tragedy and a great life gone forever. A generation of us has carried that weight throughout our lives. It's heavy, sometimes.

Because of one day 42 years ago, Thanksgiving has always carried a shadow for me. In the midst of family and fellowship stalks a dim spectre of the past and a most unwelcome awakening.


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