Old wounds heal, new ones take their place

September 10, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I had a strange thought about the recent death of Nellie Connally, the widow of the late governor of Texas and the last remaining survivor from the limousine in which President Kennedy was shot. Mrs. Connally's death, at 87, got me thinking about the passage of time, of course. But it also provoked an imagining of a future news story - one that I'm sure I won't live to read - on the death of the last remaining survivor of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

I imagined my children, 30 or 40 years from now, in middle age, noting the passing of the last survivor of 9/11 in the way I noted Nellie Connally's death - with melancholy reflection and some vague sense of that thing called closure.

I don't care for the word, and find the whole idea of emotional closure trite, but I can't think of what else to call it.

I realized, while reading Nellie Connally's obituary the other day, that we are talking about something that happened more than four decades ago.

It was a heart-scorching moment that no longer seems like yesterday.

It was a huge national tragedy and an international event that, by the force of time, has finally become a still life, rather than living history, black-and-white instead of color.

Those who can remember Nov. 22, 1963, are saddened by the memories - Nellie Connally had just turned and said, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you" - but the hurt is not as acute as it once was. The scars have faded.

Only time has made that possible.

The JFK assassination was the 9/11 of my childhood, and 9/11 is the JFK assassination of my children's lives. My daughter was 9 when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was the same age when JFK was killed. The memories of the effect of JFK's assassination on the grownups around us - their shock at the murder of promise and the death of an ideal - will remain forever with those of us of an age to remember.

But the memories are 43 years removed now; they only seem to emerge, like pentimento in an oil painting, when some other such tragedy invites comparison.

Or when the last remaining survivor dies.

I guess it's true: Live long enough and you will see old wounds heal and new ones open, and the new ones might be worse than you ever imagined possible.

Pardon my meandering through the decades.

I have a habit of pondering time. It's a sort of hobby of mine. I try to measure time and understand it. I am always marking distances on the American clock. I find it helpful to do this, but I'm never sure why, or in what way.

I'm fascinated by intervals and I note anniversaries of events.

I sometimes look back and discover the obvious, and the obvious surprises me.

For instance, tomorrow we mark five years since one of the worst days in American history.

Here's what I wish to note about five years:

Five years was the distance in time between JFK's assassination and 1968.

1968 was one of the worst years in American history. 1968 was the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and, two months later, Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. There were riots that destroyed city neighborhoods, too, including some of Baltimore's.

When I was a kid, of course, the distance between 1963 and 1968 seemed twice as long as it really was. I guess it seemed to me like a decade instead of a half-decade.

But, all things being relative - and particularly time - five years now seems to me like five months. Maybe even five weeks. (To my 92-year-old mother, the former Rose Popolo, it probably seems like five minutes.)

And so, as I look back, I no longer see the assassination of JFK as clearly distinct from those of MLK and RFK, but only the first in a fast burst of insane violence in the 1960s.

In retrospect, those assassinations now seem compressed into an hour on the American clock, a stunning loss of leadership in a wink of time. Layer in the Vietnam War and all that flowed from that flood of history in the 1960s, and it's amazing the republic survived.

But, of course, the republic survived.

It was scarred, but it survived.

I remember when the death of JFK would be marked, by the media and national leaders, on its anniversaries - the fifth, and 10th, and 25th - but we seem to have stopped doing that. It was too sad for too many, I guess, or, for the millions of Americans born since 1963, JFK's assassination carries no emotional punch; it is merely a tragic fact of history.

Time will treat 9/11 the same way, and probably sooner than later. At the mention of the date, we'll remember blue sky and ruin, terrorism and heroism, fear and anger and "Let's roll!" In time, and if we're lucky, 9/11 becomes history - another in a long line of American traumas and challenges that its people lived through and lived with, and somehow survived.


Hear Dan Rodricks on Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/ rodricks. Ex-offenders seeking help in finding employment or drug addicts seeking help in arranging treatment should call 410-332-6166.

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