Death, the American Dream, Santa, and Me: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
Because I have published two novels in which the assassination of JFK is central, the fifty-year mark of that day seems a good time to say what it was like, for me.
I was eleven years old, and it was a watershed year for me. A year of growing up, perhaps, or perhaps it was just a year when I made little progress in any direction, but moved in subterranean ways toward that which I was to become, and continue to become, in the tumbleweed of life.
I became aware of death, public violence, and of the frightening fragility of national security during an age when the use of nuclear weapons was not just on the table, but on the dinner plate of everyone in the world. We ate fear; we inhaled the deadly aroma of Hiroshima’s fate, which spread on the wind and fell in the rain. Perhaps the Jungian shadow of having released that energy brought home to us a bone-deep understanding that the world-leveling weapon we had developed could now rush forth and annihilate us in an instant. Omnipresent threats in the newspaper, on the radio, and on television informed an uneasiness that was the flip side of postwar optimism. I spent a childhood of Wednesday-noon air raid siren tests when we lived on Oahu and, afterwards, in the northern Virginia suburbs, ten miles south of ground zero for a nuclear attack.
We lived in a close-knit neighborhood where relationships were not nurtured through generations, the kind of place my parents were from, but were instead based on the shared experience of WWII. The social changes that took place postwar had brought most of the families living there to those shiny new suburbs of northern Virginia, and us to what my father called, not unfondly, “my little row house.” These subdivisions, with their wide lawns, tall trees, mixture of home models, new schools, and “shopping centers” (does that sound faintly Socialist?) unfolded like just-slightly-different images of an original vision along narrow, tree-lined Revolutionary-war era roads. They filled rapidly with women who had “retired” from important jobs to raise families, who actually used Hints from Heloise, men who worked hard, mowed lawns, and built and furnished bomb shelters in back yards, and baby-boomer military kids who like as not had lived in several exotic places before landing in Park Hills or Forest Ridge. Ninety-nine percent of these men were either active military who worked at the Pentagon or the Navy Yard or were men who, like my father, had served in WWII and continued their service to the country—however laughable that phrase seems to present-day conservatives—with the knowledge that they had something to give, that their expertise and experience could help in the huge task of reshaping their country and the world that their sacrifices had wrought.
Kennedy’s assassination tightened the very air of the Washington, D.C. area into a crystalline sheet of hyper-alertness that even a child—perhaps, especially, a child—could feel. We had felt it only a scant year earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and this was the same: normal life ceased completely. The streets were empty of kids bicycling, roller skating, playing dodge ball; the rolling lawns, sere with oncoming winter, were free from the pounding of Keds; the air held no shouts of play, argument, or of mothers calling “Dinnertime!” from back doors. We did not go to school. Families laid in food from the newly-built Safeway, where groceries were bagged, put in a crate on a conveyer belt, whisked through a hole in the wall, and loaded into one lined-up-station wagon after another by smiling, courteous men who carefully placed the ice cream in insulated bags. It was clear that we were not only living in the future, but in a future informed by people who had learned to work together and to innovate.
Our black-and-white Crosley television set, which my father bought in 1950 in Cincinnati, had accompanied us to Hawaii and back. On it, my father had watched the presidential debates as the trade winds blew through our apartment on the edge of Hickam AFB, where planes messed with the picture every few minutes. He pulled up a chair and hunched close to the TV to block out the sound of my sisters playing.
I hunched close with him and asked two important questions. The first was, “Do you want to be President?” “No,” he said, surprising me, since it seemed to be the highest aspiration of men. Then I asked, “Who are you going to vote for?” “Kennedy,” he said firmly, in his turn sounding a little surprised that I had asked.
In 1963, the Crosley was usually silent during the day, and flickered to life in late afternoon for kiddie shows–Captain Tugg, Popeye cartoons, the Mickey Mouse Show–but that weekend it was on all day, along with the radio, while my parents awaited any bit of information that might reveal whether Khrushchev, a vengeful Castro, or a government coup might take the next, unknown, but more radical step. All troops were on high alert. Everyone was on edge. My father, unknown to me at the time, had high security clearance and would also be called to work if need be. It was not just that the President had been killed. It was who had done it, and why: the mystery that still persists, in some minds. We have not been short on video clips from those fateful days during the month of November, 2013. These images are a part of our nation’s myth, worn smooth and siphoned of shock. It is hard to tell others how unsettling it was to see these events on live television when they were new, and live, and searing.
My beloved grandmother had died just two weeks earlier. She and my grandfather were living in an apartment on Walter Reed Drive, yanked from their own deep lives in Saginaw, Michigan, where they had lived since 1918 in a lumberman’s Mission-inspired bungalow on the Saginaw River. The house had been rejected by the builder’s wife. Maybe it was too small; just across the street was a formidable mansion, complete with a pool, gardens, statues, and maids. In 1960 the city had condemned a block in order to build a new bridge, and so my mother’s parents perforce left their entire life behind, joined us in Hawaii, and came back only when their oldest son, just fifty, died suddenly from a heart attack. My grandmother followed him only a year later, weakened by a broken hip and sadness, and I was left without her. I missed her quite keenly, and a few scant weeks later Kennedy was shot.
My grandfather had moved in with us, but I do not know if he was in the living room when we three young children saw Jack Ruby shoot a t-shirted Lee Harvey Oswald point-blank in the stomach. Maybe we were lucky Ruby didn’t shoot Oswald in the face, but that sudden violence, as Oswald was borne on the very arms of the police through police headquarters, was a bloody tear in the scrim of reality: bizarre, out of context, life-changing. It was not until I was twenty-five or so that I would agree, and then not willingly, to see a movie that I knew contained violence, particularly violence with guns. Now, we are all hardened to graphic visual depictions of murder, to Tarantino blood-ballets, but then—no. Emphatically no.
The black funeral procession, from which I learned the word “cortege,” in which riderless Black Jack pranced restlessly, sometimes bucking, down familiar Pennsylvania Avenue, the boots in the stirrups facing backward, seemed an ominous dark underline to my own grandmother’s death; almost the same event. I saw twice, within a few weeks, that death was sudden, harsh, removing life’s joy and luster, opening one to whatever might come next: perhaps more sudden death—why not? More deep loss, whether my own, or the nation’s. One is not changed in a stroke when such things happen, but inexorably, in an echo that reverberates and reorders life from that day forth in the constant reassessments of reality that is life.
A month later, my parents asked me to help put the presents from Santa under the tree—a great generous pile of unwrapped gifts, including a Lionel train set, many books, games like Mouse Trap, Password, Clue. We always had lavish, wondrous Christmases—and still do. As they revealed their hiding places in closets and in the attic, I helped my mother and father assemble and arrange those marvelous gifts which, each year before, Santa had brought down the chimney. My father and I put together the train set, and tried it out. I put milk and cookies on the mantle.
I think they knew this would stun me, because (I see now) they realized that I still fully believed in Santa Clause. They knew that it had to be done. My sisters, four and five years younger, probably already knew, or at least figured it out at an appropriate age, but I was always strange—deeply fey, inherently naïve, operating from a space native to my emotional makeup that came, perhaps, from too much reading when I was very young, just plain genetics, or an unusually loving family, all of which fostered my power of belief in good things. We know now that the ability to shake off the bad and suck all the juice from the good, to believe in a positive future, is healthy, and that its opposite is called depression, PTSD, or mental illness. My ability to believe in the good was dealt a blow, in that season of death, that probably has had a strong lingering effect. But it also made me begin to interrogate reality on my own, rather than relying on received wisdom. It might seem silly, and verges on the unbelievable, that I thought Santa Clause real at that age, but because of frequent moves I had no close friends to clue me in, and my exceeding bookishness allowed me to believe six impossible things before every breakfast, and to invent twelve more while I lay awake in bed and adults murmured just beyond the threshold of solid words in the still-lighted rooms of the house.
I knew that things had changed forever by the end of that December. What I didn’t know then, but what has been brought home to me forcefully this week, just how much it changed for everyone then living. Odd as it seems, this might have much in common with my loss of a being who magically brought presents.
The nation, in 1963, was optimistic. We had won the war from a standing start. We had mustered the resources to beat the Nazis, and won the quest for the atomic bomb. We had brought peace and democracy to war-ravaged Europe and to Japan. Our President was a young, seemingly vibrant war hero—despite his background of wealth, a soldier who had shown courage. He promised strength, prosperity, social progress, scientific and educational advancement. He was giving us the gift of ourselves, and of vision. He told us that we were worth something, and that we should think in terms of being of service rather than being served. He even promised us the moon.
But he was mortal as any dream.
When he died, the darkness of the Cold War increased by several degrees. There was no one to stand up against the generals, or against the CIA, which Kennedy had promised to “rip to shreds” after the Bay of Pigs. The country became uneasy, seeing conspiracies everywhere. We begin to understand that evil, random or planned, was possible even in the heart of our own country, as other generations before us had learned, but which we had hoped was magically behind us.
The vision slowly died. Perhaps it would have anyway. In its stead, we got a country-wrenching war; riots; students shot by their own countrymen; the stunning assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; a complete loss of innocence. But we also got the Civil Rights Act, active feminism, a concentration on science education.
And, against all odds, we also got the moon.
So maybe there is something to dreaming, after all.
Kathleen Ann Goonan’s latest novels are In War Times (Tor, 2007) and This Shared Dream (Tor, 2011), both of which imagine a world in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and imagine, through a WWII built of Thomas E. Goonan’s memoirs, how that world might have come about. They are available in hc and ebook. See www.goonan.com and www.goonan.com/blog for reviews and excerpts.