Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. I was eighteen. There are many things from that time that I don’t recall, but I do remember so clearly, as if watching it happen to me from one of the dorm windows in the college quadrangle, hearing someone call out the news, and then another, and another. It was the kind of thing that you had to hear multiple times to believe. I remember walking past girls standing under gothic arches crying, hugging one another. I remember being shocked by the loss without actually feeling it. John Kennedy was not my father or a close friend, so I did not feel it in that way. But I was stunned by it. I did not know what it meant.
|"For young Roddy McCorley goes to die |
on the bridge of Toome today."
As it turned out, it meant that I and the country would go into long period of mourning. I did not realize it at the time, and causality is still hard to be certain of, but in that moment in which the president died, something equally unthinkable happened to me: I stopped functioning. I wasn’t dead, but for all I was bringing to life I might as well have been. I stopped going to classes. I stayed up all night. I ate from vending machines because the cafeterias were closed when I was hungry.
When I got to college that fall, I met men--they seemed like men, and I a boy--who were impossibly exotic compared to my southern country club life to that point. My freshman roommate was from Bogotá, Columbia. I barely even knew where that was. I met and idolized an upperclassman who lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for the Arabian-American Oil Company. He brought me leather sandals made from old tire treads and told stories of swimming with sea snakes in the Red Sea.
My friend from Dhahran and another from Florida were members of the Congress Of Racial Equality. The summer I graduated from high school, while I was picking out madras shirts and Bass Weejuns for college, they were Freedom Riders on the busses that took activists into the Deep South to demonstrate for racial equality. They asked me about the lunch counter sit-ins in my hometown, Nashville. Yeah, those were cool, I said. The truth was, I knew almost nothing about them.
I grew up with racial jokes--really, to get any idea how crude and savage they were, you have to call them what most did in those days, as casually as they talked about the weather: nigger jokes. I didn’t hear them at home, but I didn’t have to go far. I would slip into the men’s grill at the country club and Peewee, the bartender, would make me an orange juice, grape juice and club soda drink he called a “transfusion” while men at a nearby table slapped their thighs and chortled as if the black waiters who served them were deaf. Blacks weren’t supposed to be uppity. They sure as hell weren’t supposed to demand to sit in the white section of the Walgreen’s lunch counter. They were caddies and waiters. They looked down at their feet when a white man spoke to them. They gave way on the path. When I wanted to putt for quarters with Sammy, one of the caddies who wasn’t much older than I, we had to do it on the dirt patch in the caddie yard, where no one could see us.
My friends in college who were in CORE took me to folk coffee houses. Folk music, especially the old Irish songs like Roddy McCorley, are about protest, about social injustice, about the striving underclass. Even mainstream music was about to get onboard: Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A Changin’” in 1963, Phil Ochs “There But For Fortune.”
The change in me that fall was like a flu. It made me breathe faster. It dulled my senses. I think my southern immune system was trying to fight it off. Part of the problem, of course, was that my emerging radicalization required that I admit to myself that I had been as bad as the rest of them. True, I hadn’t lynched anyone. I hadn’t hated. But I’d told a racial joke or two. I putted for quarters with Sammy, and I liked Peewee better than any of the men he served, but I had been insensible to their condition. I don’t know what I thought. Peewee wore a crisp white coat and black tie. I guess I thought his life was fine. Sammy was making a pretty good living beating me out of quarters, never mind the tips he got for caddying.
I didn’t go to many classes that fall semester, but I got quite an education. After weeks of late nights in coffee houses, I began to, if not understand, at least recognize the reality of social oppression. It was as if a part of life I hadn’t been aware of was suddenly revealed to me. I don’t mean I hadn’t understood socio-economic strata, I just hadn’t thought much about how they were imposed on some people against their will, how so often they were accidents of birth. I suppose I thought people chose to be the way they were. Or that, as the racial jokes would have you believe, they were lazy.
John Kennedy was my father’s age. They were alike in many ways, charismatic men who could make you believe anything was possible. Dad was a medical pioneer, but he was politically conservative. I think medicine--with its prescription of “First do no harm”--might make you that way. He didn’t tell racial jokes, but he wasn’t marching with MLK either. I remember having political debates with him, but I can’t say I know what he really thought about the civil rights movement. He judged men, but not, as far as I could tell, by the color of their skin. He was a libertarian, I suppose. Somehow he made it seem that racial injustice was happening somewhere else. As far as our insular community was concerned, I suppose it was.
John Kennedy didn’t awaken my social conscience--my new college friends and those old Irish protest songs, did that--but when I started listening to what the president was saying, to what Dr. King was saying, it was like waking from a dream. I was ashamed to have been asleep, and determined to make up for my obliviousness.
Then he was shot. I had been up all night the night before. Wandering around. I wish I could say I had been doing something useful, like homework or preparing protest pamphlets, but my awakening was slow. I was still groggy. And then the president was dead.
I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. It didn’t frighten me that he was killed, but it slapped me across the face the way I thought my father might when I came home from school with such pitiful grades. Kennedy’s death and Dad’s disappointment had the same effect on me. They made me feel helpless. They made me feel like it wasn’t worth trying. I didn’t care about school. The nation didn’t care about social equality. Nothing was going to change.
The nation and I followed similar paths to recovery. I dropped out of that first Gothic limestone college, went to night school, enrolled in another university, got married, had kids, went to law school, went to work for a corporate law firm in Los Angeles, became a dealmaker for the masters of finance, wore expensive shoes, tipped well, and had Hispanic gardeners and nannies rather than black ones. It was as if I hadn't learned a thing in those early college days. The fetus of my social consciousness had been stillborn.
The country’s path was, by my reckoning, similar to my own. We struggled through the loss of Martin and Bobby, the war in Vietnam and the oil crisis, stagflation and our "national malaise" and, about the same time I began doing deals for Wall Street, elected Reagan as president. Sure, there were important civil rights gains in the sixties, but the work of those years, both the nation’s and mine, became finished business. The Voting Rights Act passed. I graduated. That was all done. Out in California, where I had moved to get out of the bigoted South, the racial jokes were about Mexicans. At the California Club in downtown L.A., white businessmen, many my peers by then, joshed about how California had to be next to Mexico so Beverly Hills would have access to domestic workers.
Now we have a black president. If I went back to the men’s grill at my old country club, I can imagine the jokes I would hear. Racial and gender discrimination are illegal, but still widespread. Income disparity is greater than ever. Public schools have fully re-segregated. With the consent of the Supreme Court, granted just a few short months ago, Southern states are bringing back onerous voting requirements designed to disenfranchise minorities. The Tea Party is as virulent as the old Ku Klux Klan.
My father delivered babies for poor families and gladly accepted a country ham or baked apple pie as payment. But as the country has grown bigger and more diverse, the sense that a community can and will take care of its neediest members has dissipated. By default, that job has fallen to government. With that has come a kind of depersonalization of need. People who fifty years ago would not have turned away a beggar looking for a handout at the back door now have no compunction about eliminating public funding for food stamps and health care.
Those of us born right after WW II were nurtured in the relative comfort of the nineteen fifties. By the sixties we were, like all adolescents, restless for change. But our dreams, so eloquently invoked by President Kennedy, were never fully realized. It’s our own fault, of course. No one made us give up our idealism. And yet, looking back, I wonder whether on that bright fall day fifty years ago Lee Harvey Oswald did more than put a bullet through a man. I wonder whether he mortally wounded our youthful passion to be better than we had been.