It's a barely retained memory--hard to feel certain of in the face of so many replays. I am standing in front of the TV set in our living room with my toys watching horses on TV. The three year old me is seeing the funeral of John F Kennedy, which took place 50 years ago this week.
"You were bored by all the talking" my mother told me years later, "But you were fascinated by the horses, and ran to the TV whenever they were on." It makes sense, I did like horses (and singing cowboys) as a child, and it sounds like something a child would do. (Some 35 years later, I watched Princess Diana's funeral with my then three year old son, and he was only interested in the soldiers and the horses. Must be a family trait.)
The problem with remembering an event from early childhood like JFK's assassination (Or 9/11 for my children) is that its hard to separate what one saw at the time from all the news clippings and documentaries that one has seen since. Its impossible to determine for myself what I saw then and what I have seen since. But there is no doubt that the events of November 1963 affected my childhood profoundly, just as the events of September 2001 affected the lives of my children. Both events opened doors that never really closed.
One of the things that felt most real to me when I watched Forrest Gump was the way the many assassinations and other public tragedies played out like background music in the film. That really was the way it felt to me as a child of the Sixties. The deaths of the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Kent State, Viet Nam informed my entire youth. The first lines of Shakespeare I ever learned were on a memorial photo of JFK that my grandmother had hanging in her house ("And when he shall die/Take him out and cut him into little stars/and he will make the face of heaven so bright/that all the world will be in love with night/and pay no worship to the garish sun." )
My dad's favorite writer was Jim Bishop, and some of the first grown up books I read were his accounts of Lincoln and Kennedy's deaths.
I became a bit of an assassination buff (though not a conspiracy theorist). When I was in college I read William Manchester's Death of a President and understood for the first time that classical tragedy could and did play out in real life.
When a public figure dies, especially when they die young or unexpectedly we mourn their passing. But only some of the grief is for the person who died. The rest is for ourselves. We feel cheated. We feel robbed of whatever the lost one still had to offer us. As a child I barely perceived the lost promise in the tragic deaths of the three men who promised so much: John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. As an adult I have felt many times, especially twice--in December of 1980, with John Lennon, and May of 1990 when Jim Henson died. It feels like something has gone out of the world and will never come back.
But the only thing I remember of that time is the assassination itself. I regret that I wasn't a little older, to remember much of the optimism of the time, the commitment to public service. I would have liked to have witnessed more than the last scene of Camelot. (By the way, I saw Richard Harris do Camelot once. Last scene--chills.) I grew up in an age of cynicism born of tragedy, and would like to have known what went before as well.
Future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in November of 1963:
"It isn't any good being Irish if you don't know the world is going to break your heart eventually." One day 50 years ago, a whole generation learned just how cruelly hearts could be broken, not once, but again and again.