For the first time in 51 years I did not immediately associate November with both Thanksgiving and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
That is, not until REELZ cable network announced a retrospective of Kennedy-themed documentaries, everything from “The Smoking Gun” and Jackie’s life “Behind Closed Doors” to the acclaimed, gritty mini-series “The Kennedys,” with Greg Kinnear perfectly cast as Jack and lookalike Katy Holmes as First Lady.
Somehow, along the way, “Where were you when you heard about Kennedy?” had been eclipsed by “Where were you on 9/11?”
Understandable. Always new atrocities to replace the old.
Everything came rushing back as I watched the first few hours. This was not only a monumental event in history, but a snapshot of life from the pre-digital era, when cameras used film and flashbulbs and news anchors smoked on air.
The killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, live, defined “in real time” years before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Within hours, this event progressed from domestic terrorism to high drama, seemingly scripted and costumed, played by characters we knew and loved, or hated.
Not Martin Scorsese, James Cameron — not even Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone could have directed it better. Dried blood on a pink Chanel suit? Genius.
On that cold, gray November Friday, I had an appointment with my OB-GYN, who confirmed a third pregnancy. Afterwards, I ate my favorite egg salad sandwich on white toast and sipped a ginger ale (not sugar-free) at the (pre-fast food) drugstore soda fountain in the medical building, then headed downtown to the bank.
I parked (no drive-thrus) and noticed people clustered along the street as I walked the few blocks to withdraw cash (no ATMs or debit cards) for the weekend.
“Did you hear about Kennedy?” they murmured.”
I ducked into a phone booth (no mobiles, except in James Bond movies) to call my husband, so upset that I completely forgot to share the baby news.
All I could think about was shaking Sen. Kennedy’s hand on Dec. 2, 1959, after he spoke to an auditorium packed with swooning Duke co-eds. That hair. That smile. How could he be dead?
For five days, we sat mesmerized in front of the TV (black-and-white, no remote), neglecting work, meals, the kids, anything normal as facts emerged, heightening the drama against a ’60s (think “Mad Men”) set:
Women watching the motorcade wore gathered skirts. Not a running shoe in sight. The tough-guy Texas Rangers swaggered around in their five-gallon hats. Cadillacs had fins.
Abraham Zapruder filmed the atrocity in 8mm. Police officers, doctors, reporters, government officials and Secret Service personnel were men — although the judge who swore in Lyndon Johnson was a woman.
The real-time saga ended on Nov. 25 with a riderless horse, John-John’s salute, Jackie’s black veil, world leaders marching abreast down Pennsylvania Avenue, and an eternal flame.
Perhaps the horror was deepened by proximity. Newsreels of concentration camps and battlefields happened an ocean away. This happened in Texas, in Big D, home of the Dallas Cowboys, for heavens sake.
Then it happened again in Memphis and Los Angeles. We were vulnerable, close-up, hometown.
That vulnerability erupted again on 9/11, searing a template into the American psyche. Who hasn’t imagined an attempt on the life of the first black president? A poisoned water supply or anthrax-laden shopping center ventilation system?
Why, when a plane crashes, do we immediately think bomb? Every morning I flip on CNN expecting the Breaking News logo. Mass beheadings or another school shooting?
Maybe these concerns crowded out my longtime November mindset.
Although distant, that week of assassination, murder, outrage and mourning has become part of the American fabric like squares on the AIDS quilt or the Confederate flag.
This may not be a milestone anniversary like 2013, but I admit that REELZ programming rekindled my fascination, especially the news that “After Camelot” will premiere in 2016.
Only a handful of living souls remember the Titanic. For those younger than 80, Pearl Harbor is a faded “extra” newspaper edition.
But Nov. 22, 1963, still wrenches the hearts and wrings the hands of mature Americans, no matter how many turkeys await stuffing, or football games demand watching.
Therefore, lest we forget … where were you the day Kennedy died?