Where Were You?
Where were you? That was the question: Where were you when JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963? All my friends, who were alive way back then, remember where they were when JFK was gunned down in Dallas. I’m old enough to remember where I was, too, when he was killed. Old enough to remember and understand the ramifications of such an act.
I was thirteen, going on fourteen, adolescence budding into full roar. The day he was shot I was in school, a freshman in high school, standing outside in the November cold behind the gym, passing around a joint with my friends. Another friend, whom we called Ronald Redbreast, because he turned bright red every time he got drunk or smoked too much weed, appeared and broke the news to us. At first I thought he was joking, but then I could tell by the ashen pallor on his face that it was, indeed, true. My Technicolor worldwas turning black and white. I would never escape. No Exit.
A Rose with Thorns
What do you do when you think the world is disintegrating before your eyes? Where were you when these kinds of thoughts came to mind? When awareness begins that life isn’t all it’s stacked up to be. That the universe is a cruel place. A rose with thorns. A universe that owes you jack you-know-what.
I remember being in downtown Pittsburgh five years earlier, 1958, walking down the street next to my mother in the gray-sooted air, the air-raid sirens going off like bombs, blaring so loud the sound hurt my ears and I had release my mother’s hand to cover them. People on the street scattering as if their lives depended on it, my mother hustling me into the basement of a nearby skyscraper with an ominous sign posted over the door that depicted three yellow triangles and the words: Fallout Shelter. We crowded in close with a host of others and waited it out, all of us huddled three stories down in the dim light popping from light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the smell of dankness and water permeating the air. At the time, I didn’t know it was a drill—no one did—although everyone around me kept whispering it was just a drill, but I could see the fear in their eyes as they huddled next to one another. I, too, was scared witless and shitless. Of course, I knew about the bomb, the Soviet Union and the Cold War. We practiced in school, in our classrooms, climbing under desks, scurrying like rats when the alarms went off, echoing down the cement corridors like the waves of a flood. The spread of panic was palpable in the air. I could touch it. Like balloons. I only had to reach up and pop them and all hell would break loose. I was ten years old.
Assembly of Black and White Blood
Classes were cancelled for the day. Instead, we filed into the gym for a special assembly and sat down on cold metal chairs facing the stage. Above us, like a magic lantern, was a large black and white television. Coming down off my high, I sat next to my buddies, all of us in a funk as we started to watch the snowy black and white images flicker across the screen. The Presidential motorcade wound its way magisterially through the streets of Dallas, the blurry sounds of the gunshots, the President lurching forward into his wife’s lap, then later the dour images outside the hospital where the president lay, also in a basement, dead. It was a political stage, where the theater of the absurd played itself out in violence and murder, and of course continues to do so to this day. All in all, this savage act was a metaphor for the age of brutality, coming to a city near you. It was the start of more bad things to come. Sadly, just another cruel act in long line of events where human barbarity bubbles to the top. Humans feasting on each other for their own selfish ends.
Changing of the Guard
We watched Walter Cronkite with tears in his eyes, his voice breaking in his black and white world as he pronounced Kennedy dead, and later we witnessed Lyndon B. Johnson enter an airplane with Jackie Kennedy and Cronkite droning on in his gravelly voice that Johnson had been sworn in as the next President of the United States. Could it get any worse?
Gunslinger Jack Ruby
Then, a few days later, I was home watching the madness on our TV. I was about to get up and grab a snack when I saw Jack Ruby step out of the shadows in the basement of a jail as the cops were leading Oswald away, saw him step out, pull a revolver out of his jacket, point and shoot Oswald in the stomach, the gun resounding its cruelty into our living room. I was astounded, reeling. This was fantasy, it must be, I remember thinking. What was going on? This was not supposed to happen!My world was again shattered.
I should have realized a long time ago these things can happen, because of my experience in the air-raid shelter. But I had conveniently told myself that that was just an aberration. But I’d been high-jacked by the world’s hi-jinx. The events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination propelled me roughly into the real world. I became aware that all was not right in the Land of Oz, and that all would never be right. There were sinister forces lurking behind the curtains, pulling all the levers that determined our lives. At that moment, love and all it embraced seemed far away, untouchable, lost. But really, love is the only thing that can save us. Love. All you need is love. Where had it gone?
Black and White
When I think back on Kennedy’s death, my memory plays out in a black and white montage. A ribbon of fear. Most likely this happened because of the black and white television experience I had immersed myself in. I was glued to the tube for the next week. I was so colored by the black and white experience that today I see no color when I recall those times. Even the bomb shelter memory plays back to me in black and white. Perhaps fear is more palpable in black and white than in color? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s subjective. Maybe it’s just me.
Except when I light into a joint or a vaping pen, hash. Then what I experienced that day in 1963 plays back in living color. Getting stoned behind the gym that day Kennedy was murdered, I remember the colors of the trees waving in the wind, the various colors of the cars in the parking lot. The sky bundled with grey wool, patches of blue shooting through the threads. Snow flurries. Even the pot I was smoking had colors to it, an odor of greens and browns and yellows. Then, after we filed into the gym and sat down to watch the news, everything turned to black and white.
The Secret Life
God knows we don’t have the truth or the whole truth of what happened that day. Perhaps it went down as the Warren Commission said it went down. I don’t know. There are all kinds of weird theories swirling around and around, conspiracy theories. The human brain loves this kind of stuff, offers an escape to our mundane lives. Much like Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Except now, instead of glorious experiences as depicted in that book, we’re immersed in twenty-first century violence. But hell, nothing much has changed. We’ve always been a violent species. Survival of the fittest, at the top of the food chain. Yep, that’s us, the human race.
The Next Big Thing
So, I wonder, where will I be when the next big thing happens. You know, like the world Trade Center going down. We all have our flashpoints, remembering or not. Sometimes, when I light up a joint, I remember that day back in 1963, the day Kennedy was taken, and I remember it all in color, as if the black and white TV had never existed. But if I’m not having a smoke, everything in my memory reverts to black and white, snowy, as though I’m back in that gym in 1963 watching the tube in the assembly, coming down off my high, my friends seated around me. A lesson in violent civics, coming toward me like a murder of crows come to roost in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Where was I that day? I was freewheeling inside a Technicolor world, smoking pot behind the gym when the messenger appeared and I was thrust into black and white. You can never escape. Not in this world. What goes up must come down. And what goes down (hopefully) must go up. Live your life.
Up Next: MLK