Between one breath and another he was gone, a dream fading into time. But it wasn't "only" President Kennedy's death that shaped so many of our lives.
That November day in 1963 has been on my mind for days now, though it has never really left since it happened 50 years ago.
I know there are those who say that we boomers make too much of it all. Wonder if they'd say the same about 9/11 or the horror of Sandy Hook?
I was 13 that November, almost 14. We were living outside Syracuse, NY as my step father was in the Air Force and assigned to the Strategic Air Command Base.
The year before, in the fall of 1962, we'd made it through the Cuban Missile Crises, the closest this world has ever come to nuclear destruction. I'd never seen my step father and mother so worried or frightened before. He was gone for days, only returning home once to grab a clean uniform.
Now I know what we didn't know then - SAC bombers were in the air above the Arctic ready for authorization to attack. It's what the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted. It's what they pushed for, but President Kennedy knew that was a sure path to nonredeemable destruction. So he negotiated, wrote letters to Khrushchev, communicated with the head of the Soviet Union through intermediaries, played a hunch that Khrushchev didn't want a nuclear war either, and he was right.
We made it through. We all made it through, the earth made it through, thanks to President Kennedy.
Hope was on the rise in 1963. Hope for change. Hope for making things better, even in the face of so much hatred and bigotry. There was an idealism and determination to make things what they should be. No goal was too big - a man on the moon, waging war on poverty, or finally ending the endemic racism of our country. All things seemed possible. After all, we'd stared down the barrel of nuclear war and come out the other side.
And then November 22, 1963 happened. The world shifted and continued to do so over the following years. President Kennedy's death was a harbinger of things to come, though in our grief and horror, none of us knew that. Too soon we would.
Ascribing the attention and emotion of this 50 year anniversary solely to his death, misses the larger context. As traumatic as President Kennedy's death was, it did not occur in a vacuum. There was so much going on. And all of it shattered much of the American Father Knows Best, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, mythos.
It was the deaths of four little girls blown up in their church in Birmingham, Alabama earlier that year. It was the soul grotesque racism being broadcast on our televisions.
It was a burning Freedom Rider bus and Federal Marshalls sent to Alabama. It was federal troops sent to the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963, to protect black students attempting to enroll. On June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech calling upon Congress to pass a comprehensive Civil Rights bill, stressing that Americans were "confronted primarily with a moral issue, not a legislative or political one." It was the March on Washington and Dr. King's "I have a Dream" speech.
Then our young President was murdered. The President who could surely help guide us towards and through the healing that our country so desperately needed was gone. Hate and violence seemed unleashed. The dogs and night sticks of Selma, Alabama happened. Those fighting for the dream were cut down - Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Bobby.
It was Mrs. Kennedy remarrying after Bobby's death and getting her children out of the country out of fear for their lives. It was the students killed at Kent and Jackson State. There were our class mates, friends and brothers not coming home from Nam or coming home broken. It was all of it. Every damn drop of blood and bit of broken dream.
Something was hurt and hurt badly. Our innocence? Perhaps. Our faith? Maybe. Our belief in our ability to make a difference? Broken, but not gone. We're still here, after all, doing what we can, no matter how small. But it's never easy and it's never free of fear.
What happened back then haunts how I look at President Obama. It haunts my hopes and dreams for our nation, and I doubt I'm alone.
Soon, my generation will pass from this earth. We'll be the last who lived through those soul harrowing times. Perhaps that knowledge of our own mortality is part of why this 50th anniversary is resonating so deeply. It has been a half century since bullets shattered joy in Dallas and I stared at a Latin test, unable to fathom the questions or a world that had irrevocably changed.
Soon, like Abraham, Martin, Bobby, and John, we boomers will fade into history. The question is, as always, what do we do with the time left to us?
6:11 PM PT: I can't thank all of you enough for sharing your stories about where you were 50 years ago today. You've shared the people you love, friends, teachers, neighborhoods. On a day when so many of us are remembering when our world so horribly changed, you have all created a haven of comfort and sharing. Deepest thanks and blessings to you all.