Death. I’m not prepared to give Death its proper due, but a man’s got to start somewhere.
Death and I were fairly well unacquainted until later in life; my great-grandfather passed away at 99, when I was 17. Other than that, except publicly, death hardly touched my life until the Challenger tragedy, when I was 34. The experience of public death was something altogether different.
On November 22, 1963, I was 11 years old, in sixth grade. Decades later, when discussing Kennedy’s death with my classmates, some said they knew during gym class, others that they spoke about it in the locker room on the way back to class. We had gym directly after lunch (who’s the scheduler here?) I knew nothing until we got back to our classroom, and we sat down at our desks, and the loudspeaker was on. We were listening to the news, a rare and special occasion.
Then it sank in; the President had been shot. By 1:45 Eastern time (we were on Long Island), the official announcement of his death was made. I remember my neighbor across the street, standing in front of the coat closet, just breaking down in tears. She doesn’t remember this, but it’s still vivid to me. We were sent home early that day, it being a Friday, nobody would have to be back at school for a couple of days, and we had a funeral to obsess over. I got home, and my mother had taken down all the blinds in the living room, and was scrubbing them like a madwoman; she just didn’t know what else to do but clean. she was a housewife of her generation, after all; and that generation was about to come crashing down on its head, but nobody knew that, that weekend. All we knew was grief and TV coverage.
The next Spring, we said goodbye to the education and school we’d known, and said goodbye to many classmates with whom I’d have little interaction until 40 years later, on Facebook. But that was change, and not death. Kennedy’s death was final, and life-altering, even at a remove. That was my first insight into death. Things changed; and when it’s a death at a high level like that, the death itself had consequences and changed conditions around it, and around the world.
Is there such a thing as “common” death and “high-level” death? Over the next two years, I would begin to notice public deaths in the newspapers. Political figures and figures of world renown were singular and rare. It wasn’t the “front page” deaths that caught my eye, it was the death notices in the entertainment pages. It was not the mid- to late-60s, TV had been bringing entertainers into the home for a decade, after prior decades of radio introducing them to a home audience. Vaudeville had been dead since before WWII, now 2 decades past, many of the stars of vaudeville had experienced rejuvenated careers in the early days of television; all the older character actors of the ‘30s and ‘40s whose movies we watched on the MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, or TUESDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES, were getting older, and their obituaries and retrospectives were hitting the news. It was a much larger laboratory in which to view and analyze a large group of public deaths.
The old adage always went, “Deaths come in threes,” but I found that to be a rare occasion. November 22, 1963 was such a world-changing date – Huxley, Lewis and Kennedy all passed away that day. What I did notice was, if they didn’t always come in strict threes, these deaths didn’t come in a steady stream, as would be expected if life were truly random, but in clumps, in clusters. There was a lot of, “There’s two, now we’re waiting for the third to drop,” which rarely did.
I was fascinated enough to ask the school newspaper in junior high if I could write an interview article about it, and ask teachers their observations. It was the only time I ever submitted anything to the school newspaper, and the only time I was ever published there. It was obscure, and a little pre-Goth for 1966, but this inquiring mind wanted to know.
Everyone alive and conscious on that day remembers where they were that day. Something shifted that day, something changed. It was as if the magnetic poles of the universe that tilted towards justice and its responsibilities shifted away towards gluttony and greed, consolidation and control. Our modern world was shaped out of the consequences of that terrible act. The world shifted in ways we couldn’t track, much less acknowledge and recognize. In nearly 20 years, the world had been constant and consistent; in the peace that followed the end of WWII, people knew who they were, where they came from, and where they belonged. After Kennedy’s death, that was no longer true; the ground beneath our feet had shifted in some unfathomable way, and we were going to have to find our footing in the strange new world.