Like millions of other Americans, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot: sitting on the backseat of my mother’s blue Ford station wagon while she drove my brothers and me home from our Seattle-area grade school. I was six years old — a few months older than Caroline Kennedy, who turned six on November 27. Which means I am among the youngest people in the country who can vividly recall the assassination.
Not that I really want to. The shooting and its aftermath overshadowed the rest of my childhood in quietly destructive ways.
The murder of President Kennedy is my earliest memory of an event outside my home, school, and neighborhood. “You won’t be able to watch cartoons today,” my mother said as she swung the car onto our street. “The president of the United States was shot, and it’s on every channel.”
Looking back to that cold Seattle afternoon, fifty years ago, I realize my mother wanted to keep her three young children — aged five, six, and seven — calm. But the manner in which she relayed the information about JFK’s murder made presidential killing seem kind of ordinary — not something to get too excited about. The president was shot, huh? What’s for dinner?
The reactions of my parents over the next few days made me realize how upset they actually were, especially after my 32-year-old mother saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live television.
People who grew up in the five increasingly coarse decades since that terrible televised moment can scarcely fathom how shocking it was. My parents belonged to the World War II generation, so they were hardly innocent about the world’s evils. But seeing murder committed before her eyes, on top of the shock of JFK’s slaying, so traumatized my mother that my father packed up his young family that very night and drove us into the Cascade mountains for a few days of camping, far from televisions, radios, and newspaper headlines. He planned to bring us home in a few days, when it was all over.
My parents could not have foreseen that “it” would never be over — not in their lifetimes, nor the lifetimes of their children. They had no way of knowing that the journalist friends and Camelot colleagues who idolized Kennedy would never let him go, nor allow us to let him go, either. They were traumatized by his loss, and they made darn sure the rest of us stayed traumatized, too. They worshiped “Jack,” and they determined that the rest of us would forever worship him, too. Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot . . .
How could we possibly forget, given the endless books and articles they wrote, the weepy interviews they gave, the poignant Kennedy home movies they aired every November anniversary, until nearly all of these sad-eyed mourners finally died themselves?
They evidently did not realize that their public obsession with Kennedy delayed the ability of Americans to heal from the horror of his death. They prevented children like me, who had the assassination and its aftermath driven deep and hard into our young minds, from fully healing for decades, if ever. Their obsession with Kennedy led to my own youthful obsession — which is why, at age 16, I was reading Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, by Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell, and Jim Bishop’s The Day Kennedy Was Shot instead of Jaws and The Princess Bride, as normal teenagers did.