Across a burned bridge to the Kennedy assassination

Endlessly trying to understand what happened to the country 50 years ago Friday

November 20, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy came up one day several years ago, in a jarring way, and at a moment when I least expected it. I was fishing with Bill Burton and Calvert Bregel, two of my older, wiser friends. We were knee-deep in the Gunpowder River, in northern Baltimore County.

"You know what?" Calvert said, looking downstream and squinting, as if to dislodge a memory. "I haven't been here in a long time, but I think there used to be a nice covered bridge over this river."

Indeed, there had been, and just 200 yards downstream from where we were fishing. The bridge had been built in the 1880s. It had lasted almost a century.

"Someone burned it down," I said.

When I looked over, Calvert was staring at me, and it was an incredulous stare. Burn a covered bridge? Covered bridges were cherished relics of the country's horse-drawn past, landmarks of the American odyssey. Burn a bridge? Calvert could not comprehend the intentional destruction of something so useful, idyllic and historic.

"What happened?" he said, and he wasn't asking for details of the arson. "What happened?" was a much larger question about the profound and disturbing changes that had occurred in the country over the last few decades.

"They killed Kennedy, didn't they?" I said all of a sudden.

I don't know where that came from, but there it was — floating in the chilly autumn air, over the Gunpowder River. "They killed Kennedy."

"Yes," Calvert said, looking both stunned at the leap and nodding agreement with it. "You know, I've had that same thought many times myself. That it all started back then, when they killed JFK ..."

Of course, 50 years later, there's still no proof of "they" in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And yet some Americans refuse to accept Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. I don't knock those who cling to Kennedy conspiracy theories. I respect their beliefs just as I hope they respect my belief — and the late Calvert Bregel's — that the Kennedy assassination left a deeper wound than we realize, and that many bad things flowed from it.

"We got in trouble because Arthur died and Camelot fell," a Catholic priest named Michael Kettenring tells Gus Russo, a freelance journalist based in Catonsville, in a new book called "Where Were You?" It is the companion book to Friday night's two-hour NBC special, hosted by Tom Brokaw, on the day Kennedy died, Nov. 22, 1963.

"We lost innocence," Kettenring says. "I mean, I think we went immediately from 'Leave it to Beaver' to 'Easy Rider' and 'Apocalypse Now.' We just literally went from childhood to adolescence and it was an ugly adolescence. I mean, it was with a great deal of anger and attitude. ... It was obviously a confluence of [many] things. But I think the level of anger, the attitude that the country took on was far greater because we had lost our great hero."

Many people who were not around in 1963 dismiss, with nasty Internet-age snark, what they consider JFK worship, the tendency to see Kennedy as a martyr and his brief presidency as Camelot. They think the mourning has gone on too long, and they are probably impatient with the attention this anniversary gets.

Historians, more clinical and logical, tend to avoid ascribing big societal changes to any single event, and I generally defer to that perspective.

But it's impossible to look back 50 years, to recall Dallas, and not feel crushing loss and the gone-forever of an ideal in some corner of your soul. If you were too young to understand it at the time, you certainly saw it in the faces of the elders around you. I did.

"As I worked on this project, it became clearer than ever that everything did change after JFK," says Russo of his latest book. "Whether it was cause and effect or just coincidence, since a lot of things had been simmering and due to erupt, we may never know."

It's hard to look back to a day when a president traveled in an open limousine and not see a panorama of the violence that followed — the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the age of the gun, and the great and awful pileup of deaths of our fellow Americans in every decade since.

It's impossible to listen to a Kennedy speech, his elegant presentation of ideals and his calls to service, and not hear the contrasting voices of the present age, the cynics who tear down government and the idea that it can be a force for good.

Maybe it was always thus — always a violent country, always divided, always a bitter fight. Life in America was far from perfect before Dallas; big battles were brewing. But there was promise in the air. The country had smart and vigorous leadership, ideals boldly stated, devotion to the common good, and ambitions to keep moving forward, building bridges instead of burning them.

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