Fifty years after the bullet that changed us

For a gen­er­a­tion of us, he was the gal­lant knight — hand­some, brave, smart and charm­ing. The smile, the ath­leti­cism, the sweet way he showed his af­fec­tion for Car­oline and little John-John…all of it cap­tiv­ated us.

John F. Kennedy was our touch­stone to Cam­elot. King Ar­thur in a pin-striped suit and ox­ford shirt.

And then he was gone in an in­stant. A tra­gic hero felled by an as­sas­sin’s bul­let.

The mind boggles to ac­know­ledge that yes, it was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, when everything changed. Our na­tion­al psyche was dam­aged, some still think bey­ond re­pair. Our in­no­cence ended as JFK slumped in that lim­ousine, and dazed and stunned, we went through that week­end weep­ing for him — and for ourselves. Cam­elot was gone.

All these years later, this date on the cal­en­dar still has the emo­tion­al pull to carry us back to that sur­real time, and make us pause to re­mem­ber ex­actly where we were when we heard. In my life, the only se­quel, so far, has been Sept. 11, 2001.

In our little Cape Cod-style house on Nov. 22, 1963, I’d just got­ten our tod­dler down for her nap. I’d in­vited two col­lege friends for lunch and a re­union. And there we were, three young moth­ers about to dig in­to our lunch and our giddy re­col­lec­tions, when Rose, my next-door-neigh­bor, ap­peared at the door, ashen and clearly shaken. 

“They’ve shot the pres­id­ent,” she told us, barely get­ting the words out.

Noth­ing re­gistered in those first seconds. Nobody got it. But one flip of the kit­chen’s black and white TV set and there it was: a coun­try in the earli­est stage of an­guish and dis­be­lief.

On some bizarre im­pulse, I ran up the steps to look in on Jill. I needed to know that she, at least, was safe. Now, with hind­sight, I re­cog­nize that race up the steps as one of my first real con­nec­tions to moth­er­hood it­self: I was think­ing first, and in­stinct­ively, of our child.

My col­lege friends had sim­il­ar re­ac­tions. They left for home and fam­ily, not know­ing why, but know­ing that they had to be there. We’ve of­ten said that from that mo­ment on, our peri­od of grace was over. Cam­elot was gone, van­ished in a flood of in­delible im­ages, most strik­ingly the no­bil­ity of Jack­ie Kennedy, beau­ti­ful and brave; the un­for­get­table flash­cube mo­ment of John-John Kennedy sa­lut­ing; the ghostly rider­less horse.

It had las­ted only a thou­sand days, the Kennedy White House, but so many of us had bought in­to it. The ma­gic had seeped in­to our lives, giv­ing us vi­cari­ous el­eg­ance and vi­brancy.

We would miss the ex­cite­ment of it all: a dash­ing fam­ily, lar­ger than life, work­ing hard, play­ing hard, giv­ing us a glimpse of how glor­i­ous life — and Amer­ica — could be. It wasn’t about polit­ics as much as it was about hope.

And in the flash of an as­sas­sin’s bul­let, it was gone. In its wake still come the end­less de­bates about wheth­er we are there now, or ever will be.

How we em­braced our pres­id­ent when he said “Ich bin ein Ber­liner.” Or when he in­vited us to “ex­plore the stars, con­quer the deserts, tap the ocean depths.”

And how we mourned when that light was ex­tin­guished.

Yes, the Beatles came. And so did hip­pies. The civil rights move­ment. Vi­et­nam. Protests. The first moon shot. And of course, 9/11.

His­tory moved on. The world did not stop when JFK was laid to rest.

But noth­ing was ever quite the same.

And so many years later, there are still those of us who re­mem­ber … and mourn for those thou­sand golden days.

And if you’re old enough, maybe you’ll re­mem­ber, too. Maybe you’ll get a flash­back of that time when we were sup­posed to ask what we could do for our coun­try, not the re­verse.

And no mat­ter what your polit­ics, maybe you’ll stop for a mo­ment or two to re­mem­ber that “…brief, shin­ing mo­ment that was known as Cam­elot.” ••

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