Mourning JFK, we also mourn our lost selves

November 21, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The years fade behind us, but we continue to drape this hour in mourning cloth. So let's be clear about our intent: We mark the various anniversaries of John Kennedy's death not merely as recollections of a martyred president, but as a turning point in our own vanished lives.

Thirty years since the shots in Dallas? Yes, but the thing that moves us most deeply is the memory of our own innocence, our own slain hopes. Dallas is where they were buried.

Kennedy is mostly our point of reference. The man we thought we knew back then turned out to be somebody else, but we remember how it was in our own hearts when we heard the terrible news, and this is the thing that still stirs us each Nov. 22. Kennedy was a last fling an entire generation had with grand illusions.

In him, we saw the face we wanted to see in our own mirrors: Prince Valiant, out to slay the dragons of the day before returning home to his golden family. The world was simpler then, either because we were younger, or because the issues seemed so starkly drawn. Here was the great standard-bearer for a bright new culture.

He'd backed Khrushchev down over the missiles in Cuba, hadn't he? He was beginning to say the right things about civil rights, wasn't he? He had grace and wit and style, didn't he? Who among us didn't see in these qualities the ones we wished for ourselves, and thus mourned his loss even more?

But the world turns out to be a more complicated place 30 years later, and Kennedy a more complex figure in retrospect. The cold warrior stared down Khrushchev, but he also helped set into motion a monstrous arms race that would last three decades and eventually help cripple neglected cities. We thus created the best-defended slums in history.

He talked of civil rights, but we learn only in hindsight how he feared the political fallout from race, and thus had to be coaxed into the fight by those more moved by fairness than by voting patterns.

The great Kennedy wit and style? Not so thrilling, when $l combined with the mob associations, the women dropping in when no one was supposed to be looking. In hindsight, he seems an impossible gambler, a man outrunning his own sense of boredom.

To watch him now in the old films, even on that final day in Dallas, is to receive a perverse kind of gift: the knowledge that we could be so touched by something that, 30 years later, it can still tear us up. Out of the ordinary numbness of daily life, it's nice to have this reminder that our hearts are capable of such emotion.

But the pictures that touch us most deeply aren't specifically rTC Kennedy. They're the surrounding players, who happen to have faces like our own. Some of them are standing on the streets of Dallas when they hear the news, and you see them weeping and then covering their faces in a mix of despair and shame.

And you see the crowd scenes from around the country as they hear what's happened, and you remember how it was in your own life: in College Park, where everyone on this huge campus moved about in stunned silence; on Howard Street downtown, where a beggar with a transistor radio was surrounded by downtown shoppers listening for the latest bulletins; in everyone's home, where people sat by the television set, awed, watching the worst news of their lives.

I was a freshman in college, attending a physical education lecture. There were early, sketchy reports coming over the radio: a shooting, Kennedy and Connally, and the motorcade racing to a hospital. The mind was caught between rejecting such an impossibility, and wanting to race desperately through the building to find someone who would know the truth.

In class the instructor, a man named Fluke who had a buzz-saw haircut, declared in the most sneering tones: "Everybody just sit here. I have a lecture to deliver. When I'm finished, then you can find out whether or not the president's dead."

Again, that sense of lost naivete. We sat there and took notes, when we should have thrown him out of a window. Everything in the world was changing in that instant, but it hadn't quite dawned on us yet. After this moment, we would never look at any authority figure the way we once had.

So we allow ourselves this sentimental journey every five years. It's a visit to the life of John Kennedy in his youth, and yet it's not. It's really the memory of our hearts breaking over him on Nov. 22, 1963, which was the final chapter of our innocence.

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