I would imagine that few people have memories of their first birthday and I am no exception. My first birthday remains memorable, however, because it was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
I don’t know what that birthday was like. I can’t ask my Dad about it; he passed away 35 years ago. My Mom is no longer in a place where she could tell me her memories of that day. I asked my oldest sister, she remembers being in the school library when the news arrived in the very small town in Minnesota in which we lived at the time. She saw the teachers crying and got scared. She said that later that day, the entire family gathered around our one small black and white television to watch the news coverage. She imagines that my parents kept poker faces throughout, to hide their own sadness and fear so as not to further scare their four children or ruin my birthday.
For me, they needn’t have worried.
As far as I know there are no family or birthday photographs from that day. My Dad didn’t break out the 8mm Bell and Howell camera with outrageously bright floodlights that reminded me of a moose’s antlers made of two small suns. November 22, 1963 just wasn’t the day for that — first birthday or not.
But now that day a half century ago (can it really be 50 years?) remains a permanent part of my life, despite my lack of memories of it. Each birthday I celebrate is another anniversary of the day the young President of the United States was murdered. Perhaps that has something to do with why I’ve never been interested in celebrating my birthday.
There is no way to spin such an epic tragedy into a happy story. A few days before my birthday this year I began researching the assassination and was surprised to learn new things. I was amazed that after so long, anything new could be learned but it is such a complicated tale with so many twists and turns that perhaps only so much can be taken in at one time. Most likely I’ll learn a few more new things next year.
The seemingly infinite conspiracy theories are often the most fascinating to sit back and peruse. But a few days spent reading them leads to one simple conclusion: the only two people that I can positively say aren’t somehow connected to the CIA or the Mafia are my wife and me. And now I’m not so sure about my wife.
If the assassination had happened today, there would be a thousand cell phone videos and photographs of every graphic detail but I’m not sure that would have helped anyone comprehend what had happened. In fact, it might have made things worse, adding even more questions to a seemingly infinite mountain of questions.
As for me, I have to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the President on his own. More or less. To believe much else would mean that somewhere out there, hidden to the eyes and lives of ordinary Americans, is a group that is more powerful than the most powerful man on earth. Barring strong evidence to the contrary, I find that I need to believe that group doesn’t exist. That America and Americans (and even an American President) aren’t simply pawns in a game that few could possible grasp.
There are so many twists, turns and weird coincidences in what happened on that horrific day in Dallas that the majority of Americans still believe the true story has yet to come out. But reading between the lines of fact and fiction, what is apparent is an entire nation changed that day and it all happened on the mere flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Had this been different… Had that been different… November 22, 1963 would have been nothing more than my first birthday. And now, President Kennedy was younger than I am when he died.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
Sometimes it seems that John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. President to suggest that we are more than our own individual, selfish needs — our strength as a nation depends upon us, the American people, and not corporations or simply going out to shop for Christmas gifts. It is not a simple matter of our needs but the needs of something greater made up of all of us. Yet it seems thinking of what we can do for our country is no longer in vogue. But those words still carry weight today and more than ever, they should.
On November 22, 2013 I left the newspaper office in the morning, shut off my cell phone and began driving. I ended up close by at a place that is special to me and spent the afternoon thinking about life and a blessed nation; and of a time when the future of a young president and this young nation still seemed boundless.
Before long, the sun was beginning to set. Fifty years ago, the nation was just beginning to grapple with the knowledge that the president was dead. Fifty years later, it was a beautiful evening in Florida. I raised a glass of wine to life, to the now infinite promise of a young president, to our nation and to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. May their wisps of change bring us fortune rather than tears.