How many times has your life taken a snapshot of itself? You live a moment so profound that your mind captures every detail, every feeling, every sound and smell.
For most of us, Jack Kennedy’s assassination was such a moment.
Our wedding(s). The births of our children. Pearl Harbor, the first moon landing, and September 11th were others.
I’d like to share a few of the defining moments of my life. Perhaps once you read them, you’ll share with me a moment or two of your own.
* April 1945. The first newsreels of Nazi death camps.
I was stunned. Skeletons crept across the muck-filled screen. Unflinching faces of death stared at me, challenged me: “How could you let this happen?” Did I, as I remember, actually smell those mounds of bodies, silent and screaming, thousands of them, piled like matchsticks?
A news junky since kindergarten, I’d followed the war intently, daily poring over the Chicago Tribune’s maps of ever-changing battle lines. Now nine years old, nothing could have prepared me for such death and dying, starvation and hopelessness, all larger than life on the Pickwick Theater’s big screen. My spirit was outraged; my small body nauseated. Those unimaginable images of man’s inhumanity to man stick to me still, like the scent of death. (Note: I recently visited Auschwitz. Soon I’ll write a column about my unsettling experience there.)
* April 12, 1945. FDR dies at age 63. May 8, 1945. V-E Day.
I remember the details: riding my bike up and down the streets of my hometown in the suburbs of Chicago wearing my cousin Jim’s government-issued sailor hat and blowing a brass whistle like a traffic cop gone mad. But I don’t remember whether I was celebrating Roosevelt’s death or the end of war in Europe.
The president was reviled in my family and throughout this place that was later to produce Hillary Rodham. Radio stations played “Home on the Range” over and over until you hated it; the song had been Roosevelt’s favorite. Words were sparse that day. The man had been president for so long that no one knew what to say. And who the heck was Harry Truman?
* April 1, 1948. The passing of my grandfather.
It was my first experience with death and dying. And great loss. Suddenly mortal, I suffered a deep, overwhelming hole in my soul, a feeling so devastating that I bawled the five miles I biked to my Aunt Marion’s seeking comfort and understanding.
My grandfather was my mentor, my brick. My namesake, although I called him Dad. He was a high school teacher, and he was wise. We lived together. He taught me forgiveness. He taught me love.
* October 22, 1962. President John F. Kennedy informs the world of secret offensive missile bases in Cuba.
Alone and on the brink of nuclear annihilation, I wondered if I would live long enough to be called up by my Army Reserve unit. Numb, I stared incredulous at my 13-inch black-and-white TV. A grim president flashed photos and charts showing Soviet nuclear missiles that, in a matter of minutes, could reach us in Philadelphia. If it was Kennedy’s intent to terrify me as never before, he succeeded brilliantly that October evening 40 years ago.