My mom had just turned 10 and my dad — a Dallas expatriate who'd suddenly lost his dad 10 months before — was 14. They wouldn't have me for almost 17 years. That's where I was.
But I can tell when I first learned about the assassination — it was in the fall of 1988. Dad had bought a book, Reg Gadney's Kennedy, that detailed the president's life, term and death (I still have it). I also remember the local cable-TV ticker promoting in its crude-yet-hypnotic computer lettering, "THE JFK ASSASSINATION: AS IT HAPPENED, 25TH ANNIVERSARY." For an 8-year-old, 25 years seemed like a lifetime ago. (Now that 25 years have passed since 1988, I can understand why that didn't seem so long ago then.)
Nevertheless, I became engrossed in the book, which favored Life magazine in its expansive photography and relatively short prose. The section that particularly mesmerized me — and read over and over — was the chapter on the assassination and the Zapruder film. Something about it fascinated me; I think it was the journalist in me even then, because the sheer depth of coverage of the event for the time was astounding.
Six years later, in the summer of 1994, my family and I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas, making a stop at the Sixth Floor Museum (the former Texas School Book Depository). We walked on the grassy knoll. I was very sick from food poisoning at the time, but still remember it vividly. It was the first time I was able to place myself somewhere I'd seen in my books. Dealey Plaza, as it turned out, is a real and unimposing place that happens to be where something historically horrible happened. It put the assassination, formerly mythic in my mind, in a real-live context. It was a real thing that happened to a real person in a real public area. That seems obvious, but I was still surprised when that realization hit me. (And it did hit, even though it was only a fraction of what the people at the time must have felt.)
So why am I recalling where I was when I learned about the assassination, when I've criticized similar stories about 9/11?
In part, because the less-media-saturated age of 1963 means that there's a diversity of interesting stories in that regard. The audience of the Boston Symphony was informed mid-concert, and you can hear them at first shocked, then crying as the conductor launches into a memorial song. Breaking-news broadcasts were practically in their infancy, and it's as compelling to watch the process as it is gut-wrenching to soak up the reality. Personal stories, especially from children of the time, are poignant in the ground they broke. It wasn't just about loss of innocence; it was realizing in retrospect that there had been innocence to lose.
The extensively documented events preceding the Kennedy assassination highlight the circumstances that make it especially tragic. It had been a happy day. In some pictures, even after the first bullet, you can still people people cheering as it has yet to register. Afterward, there was a nearly universal outpouring of sympathy and revering of Kennedy even by his political opponents. Some argue that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in part out of respect for his legacy. It was definitely a different time in D.C.
Today, we have 24/7 news, the Internet, Twitter and smartphones. We're used to unrest, political polarization and endless war and danger. Our hope every day is our leaders, not to mention the rest of us, aren't shot while going about the day. No tragedy is completely unexpected. And when it happens, conspiracy theorists will inevitably rise up and huff about us not knowing The Real Truth. We're all inherently jaded at the possibility of chaos. I'm too young to know for sure, but I suspect the events of 50 years ago represented the biggest leap toward this in our lifetimes.
And yet, despite all of this, JFK's goodness also looms large in our public conscience. His murder was a big deal, but it shouldn't overshadow what he was about in life. What he thought we were capable of doing for our country. What kind of people we could be. The legacy he left that filled the rest of the book that I read so long ago. Let's not forget to read those pages too.