Where Were You When

Yesterday was a day for remembering - where were you when? When Kennedy was shot.

Of course I know where I was - I was seven years old, so I was in elementary school, struggling to put my chair upside down on top of the desk as we always did at the end of the day. It was hard for me - I was short and chubby and not particularly good with physical things. So I was probably hot and sweaty, because it was a warmish humid day, even though it was late November in the midwest. I imagine the classroom smelled fusty with end-of-the day body odor from 30 second graders.

Our teacher was  called out of the classroom. She was my favorite teacher of all time, Miss Trudy Strale, one of those dedicated spinsterish teachers who was warm and appreciative and understanding.

Yes, I was her pet. I readily admit it.

So when she came back into the room with tears streaming down her pretty face, I was alarmed. What had happened to hurt my favorite teacher so? And then she said: "Boys and girls, a terrible thing has happened to our country. President Kennedy has been killed."

The scope of a 7 year old's understanding was revealed by my reaction. I turned around and said to the boy behind me (Mark Gardner, aka "Mouse") - "I don't care. I will just go to Kentucky and live with my cousins."

Believe it or not, I was considered one of the "smart kids" in those days.

Obviously I had no idea of the ramifications of that moment, didn't even understand what had happened. Over the course of the next few days, with schools and businesses closed out of respect, with our parents crying and glued to the television for all the latest news and then the long state funeral, I finally came to grasp the import of the situation.

Yesterday, my mother talked about where she was on that day, and I realized I'd never asked her about what she was doing when she heard the fateful news. "I was shopping," she said, "at the Federal's store on Plymouth Road." I could picture that store immediately, because it was a place we often shopped. I could even smell the particular combination of dusty carpet and new clothing that permeated the old building.

"I went looking for Dad right away. 'They've killed the President,' I told him. 'I've got to get home to my baby, because who knows what will happen next.'" Of course, I was the "baby" in question, and it made perfect sense that her first impulse would be to find me and protect me at a time when the world around her seemed so uncertain and vulnerable.

That was a sensation I knew very well. Because the morning of September 11, 2001, another day when the world as we knew it was shaken to the core,  I was on an airplane that got grounded half-way between Michigan and Florida and I too had an overwhelming need to be with my family. I was stuck midway between my mother and my son, unable to get to either one of them. We waited, not knowing what would happen next.

"This country was never the same after that day," my mother said yesterday, referring to the day Kennedy was killed. "I don't think we knew how evil people could be until that happened, and people have been getting meaner and meaner ever since."

Every nation has pivotal moments that change them. Every generation lives those moments in a different way. They all involve a loss of innocence that alters the way you live your life - for good or ill - from that day forward. Assassinations, acts of terrorism, those are the events that can make us draw inward, make us want to protect ourselves and our families. They make us edgy and distrustful. We run. We hide.

Even as a seven year old child, my first thought was to flee, to leave the country (even if it was only for the perceived safety of my aunt and uncle's farmhouse in the blue grassy hills of Kentucky). But in the 38 years between 1963 and 2001, I learned that any attempt to escape is futile. All you can do is gather your courage, circle the wagons, and hope for the best.

Evil didn't start on that November day in Dallas. There has always been evil in the world, and there always will be. It visits each nation, each generation, even each family and person in some degree.

One thing that is certain - you never forget what you were doing the moment you meet it.