Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering

It's November 22, 2013 ... the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's a day I'll never forget. I was an 11-year-old 6th grader at Charles Peck Elementary School in Carmichael, California, a suburb of Sacramento. Robert Stevens was my teacher -- my favorite teacher of all time, in fact. It was 11:30 a.m., and Robert Parker, a popular classmate, came back to class from the school office with the announcement that the president had been shot. The classroom went still and silent, and I remember, with a child's naivete, hoping it wasn't serious. Thirty minutes later we got the news that the president was dead. Most of us began to cry, and Mr. Stevens, dealing with his own shock, did his best to comfort his class. A few minutes later, school was dismissed. I lived only a few blocks from the school and hurried home with my younger sister, then spent the next four days, along with my family, in front of our television set.


I remember the details of those few days so vividly: the shock and grief of the spectators who lined the motorcade route that day in Dallas; the pink suit that Jacqueline Kennedy wore, covered in the blood of her husband; the deep sorrow on her face as she stood next to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One as he was sworn in as President of the United States, with the coffin that held the body of her husband only a few feet away; her being helped off the jet once they were back in Washington, DC and placed in the hearse along with her husband's body. I remember the grief on the face of Bobby Kennedy as he stood beside her then and throughout the next few days. Of course no one could know or imagine that 4 1/2 years later, he too would fall to an assassin's bullet. I remember the president's flag-draped coffin as he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, Mrs. Kennedy kneeling at the coffin and kissing the flag, with her young daughter beside her. I remember the thousands and thousands of mourners who passed the coffin to pay their respects, wishing I could be one of them. I remember the funeral -- Jackie holding her two young children by the hand, and young John John, whose third birthday it was, saluting the caisson that carried his father's body as it passed by. I remember the symbolic riderless horse in the funeral procession, and of the former First Lady lighting of the eternal flame at the grave of the fallen president.

And I remember how sad and solemn I felt.

I remember the coverage of the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, and seeing his assassination that Sunday morning.

And wondering why it all had to happen.

Looking back, I think this was the trigger that awakened the writer in me, because I remember it being the first time I put myself in someone else's life, imagining what it would be like to live their story.

Of course, my memories have been reinforced by all the documentaries I've watched over the years, but the memories seared deep within my psyche are from the event, not the accounts of the event. I began a scrap book from all the newspaper and magazine articles that weekend, and added to it over the next weeks and months. It, along with all my other important keepsakes, was lost in a fire shortly before I was married.

My sister moved to McKinney, Texas, not far from Dallas, a few years ago. (I'm happy that she's now back in California.) The first time I went to visit her, we went to The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, from which Oswald shot the president, and which chronicles the assassination and legacy of John F. Kennedy. I bought a Sixth Floor Museum mug (I'm very fond of mugs) from which I've never drunk. I stood at the very window through which Oswald fired the rifle. The very window. I stood on the grassy knoll, saw the X in the road that marks the spot where the bullet struck. I drove by Parkland Hospital where the president was taken -- the same hospital Oswald was taken to two days later when he was shot.

I know, this is all very morbid. But so is the reality. It's imperative we don't forget, but really, how could we?

There are a few places I never expected to be in my life. The site of Kennedy's assassination is one of them. I went back again with my husband a couple of years later, and it was as sad and solemn the second time as it was the first. It was for Rick as well.

I never expected to be at Arlington Cemetery, standing before the eternal flame at the grave of John Kennedy, with his wife Jackie resting beside him.

Or the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis for more than two years. I saw the marks on the wall where her father recorded the height of Anne and her sister Margot over the course of those two years; saw the yellowed tape on walls where Anne hung movie magazine photos of her favorite American movie stars.

That same day Rick, our daughter Mindy and I took a train to Haarlem and visited the Cory Ten Boom Museum. The Ten Booms were a Dutch family that hid Jews and helped them escape from the Nazis, before ending up in a concentration camp themselves for those good deeds. We actually stood in the Hiding Place they created in the upper levels of their 500 year old home.

Days later, in South Africa, Mindy and I stood only feet away from a rogue elephant, on his turf no less, as he stood between us and our vehicle. It was a very unexpected and dangerous position to be in.

I never, ever expected to be in any of those places or situation, but they were all deeply moving experiences -- the type of experiences that help create the deep wells we draw from as we write about life.

What about you? Have you been places you never thought you'd be? How have those experiences enriched you as a writer?

11 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

Disneyland.
I didn't expect, walking through there, to be struck by the memory of being five years old and watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights in my pyjamas, mindful of the crack in my plastic Micky Mouse Club ears in the cupboard and sensing my place in the big wide world as one of smallness, insignificance, lacking the necessary finesse or grace to approach such a holy reality.
And there I was. I didn't expect, walking through Disneyland, to be hit with such a physical force of memory. An unspoken dream I'd discarded before I was even able to articulate it as a dream. I didn't realise, until I stood there, that it was a dream come true. It made me cry, even more so when I realised I was living my other most precious five-year-old dream at the same time: I have long hair!
I bought a mug, too. And I drink out of it.
Gosh. It's not quite JFK's grave, but the impact was probably the same.

Patti Hill said...

The longer we live, the more unexpected places we'll find ourselves. I sobbed as I watched the images of the Kennedy funeral. Four years later, I shook Bobby's hand when he flew into L.A. for the California primary. He was shot two days later. I also met Richard Nixon on the corner of Del Mar and Ole Vista. He had just bought Pat some candy in San Clemente. I watched his downfall with different eyes, I believe, since I looked into his eyes and saw that he was much too short to be president.

But the deep wells that have truly fueled my writing are related to people much closer to me--the early death of my father, the humiliation of a friend, the near death of my husband, closing my mother's eyes after watching her take her last breaths. The more I live closely connected to others, the more human I am and the better writer I am. Thanks, Sharon, for waking me up this morning to such eloquent thoughtfulness.

Patti Hill said...

Wait! I forgot about Knott's Berry Farm! I have to give them a nod since Megan talked Disneyland.

My first real date with my husband happened at KBF. I take from that experience the awkward delight of leaning against him on the log ride to remember the zing of that first intimate touch. And I also remember his mortification because I hadn't zipped up my jeans after visiting the bathroom, and he had to tell me. From that, I learned how tough things can be said with grace. It's all good, isn't it?

Sharon K Souza said...

Megan, what a bittersweet memory. I had no idea you could watch The Wonderful World of Disney in Australia! A number of years before you, that was our family tradition and I love it!

Patti, what an experience with Bobby. Funny, at the same time, I was a 15-year-old runaway living in SF, and the guy I was hanging out with and I used to get Bobby Kennedy for President stickers from the local precinct workers, and we'd put them on people's bumpers as we went around town. Ha! It was such an unbelievable shock to learn that he too had been shot and killed. What a time it was a time ... sounds like Simon and Garfunkle again.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I have been all over the western world. Culloden where mounds mark the burial sites of the clans of Scotland and farmers plow the fields where the English bones will never have rest.
Syntagma Square a few months after the economic riots.
The parking lot that divides the flashy Gold Reef City amusement park in Johannesburg from the Apartheid museum.
The Plains of Abraham and the Niagara Escarpment where the British and the French decided Canada's history and pitted the Natives against each other.
Tomorrow would have been my older brother's birthday so I am remembering him, misunderstood, broken hearted, broken spirited, giving his all if somebody would just accept him a little. In my mind I'll go back to a tent on Mont Aux Source in the Dragensberg. We played with Dinky cars and pretended the leopards wouldn't eat us. Mum would send us to meet the milkman at the Camping Park gate, a 6 year old and a 3 year old and if I didn't hold his hand very tight I would get lost and the leopards would eat me.

Sharon K Souza said...

Henrietta, what memories. I felt them as you shared them. I'm sorry about your brother. I too lost my older brother. 41 years ago and I still miss him every day.

Rick Souza said...

I remember the events as vividly as Sharon. I was in the 6th grade also, but I was home sick watching Pete and Gladys when my mother came in crying and saying the president had been shot. We were Catholic, and it was as if we'd lost a family member. Very sad time for us.

Several years ago I was in the Solomon Islands on a ministry trip and had the opportunity to go to the island where John Kennedy swam with his crew after the destruction of the PT109. You could feel the presence of that man and his crew. Our boat went over the place where the PT109 sank.

Such promise, such tragedy, such a tremendous loss.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

In eleventh grade my class went on a trip to Gettysburg. We anticipated a fun week. We would be afforded a lot of freedom (which, looking back was a BAD idea...).

On the first day, we visited the battlefield and listened to our history teacher tell of the bloody happenings of that battle. The grass was green, but all I could think of was how scared it was beneath what we could see. How many men died on that very land.

Being on the ground that held such darkness was sobering. It was, perhaps, the first time I felt the wonder of being connected to history. I kept thinking "I can't believe I'm here".

The second time, I was in New York City a couple weeks after the attack. I stood on the steps of the Museum of Natural History when a firetruck passed. Everyone stopped and cheered for the men on the truck. That memory still brings tears to my eyes. It was beautiful to share in that moment with strangers.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Sometimes, we avoid the deeply moving places; or we explain them away, or deny them and forever after we are more closed off. Our emotions become stone and so does our writing. Or, if we were wise and lucky enough to write instead of shutting down, labeling or judging, we grow and blossom. Oh, how I love my writing, it takes me deep inside - safely, with a fictional character.

You see, what if you were raised in a family that thought Kennedy was not a desirable president and so you didn't really grieve the magnitude of what this terrible evil did to a person and a nation?

Judgement seals off the emotion - a terrible thing to happen to a writer. May I know love and acceptance and how to convey that through pen and paper.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Well said, Cherry. We serve an emoting God. Emotions are the story.

Sharon K Souza said...

Susie, those are precious memories. Thank you for sharing them.

Cherry, I totally agree, my writing takes me deep inside as well. Regarding your point about JFK, I did have parents that hadn't voted for him and probably didn't agree with his politics, but they shared with the nation in mourning the loss of our president. But I know that wasn't true of everyone.