Kirby: Each generation has its soul-riveting moment
Fifty years later, I still have a clear memory of standing at the second-floor window of my fifth-grade classroom at Garfield Elementary School watching the other kids play below.
The day was cold and gray. Mrs. Henry had restricted me to the classroom for lunch recess because of something I don't recall but freely admit was probably bad.
My playground nemesis Nancy was playing on the monkey bars. I was hoping she would fall off and somehow land on her head when the loudspeaker crackled.
In a solemn voice, Principal Fahrer announced to the entire school that President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in Dallas.
At her desk, Mrs. Henry gasped and started to sniffle. Duncan, who was restricted as well but for something else, said, "Holy cow, the president!"
I don't remember saying anything. I do remember thinking, "Great. Why couldn't the #%@& Russians kill Nancy instead?"
Hey, I was 10. I had my own priorities. Also, my parents had enthusiastically voted for Richard Nixon. The loss of JFK didn't immediately register as a calamity.
Recess was canceled and everyone called back to class. We sat at our desks and listened to Mrs. Henry tearfully reassure us that the country wouldn't fall apart just because the president was dead.
Because we regularly practiced scrambling under our desks to hide from city-obliterating nuclear bombs, I doubt anyone believed her. I didn't. I was more concerned about the possibility of having to stay after school.
It took a few hours for my priorities to readjust. Some lunatic with a rifle SHOT the president of the United States. Not the president of Tanganyika, the president of Chad or the president of France. The president of AMERICA.
Walking home, I finally realized just how scary and dangerous the world actually was to me. If someone could kill the president, how safe was a misbehaving fifth-grader? President Kennedy had bodyguards and fighter jets. All I had was a dog and a BB gun.
I also had an afternoon paper route. When I delivered the paper with its shocking headline, most of my customers were waiting by their doors with stunned looks. The president's murder had stopped everyone's clock.
Nov. 22, 1963. That was the day it first occurred to me that I was part of a world beyond Saturday morning cartoons, Sugar Frosted Flakes and playing with matches. In truth the world was a scary place that did not have my best interests at heart.
There would come other moments when the bigger world intruded on my reverie to remind me I wasn't safe. Hearing my draft number (15) called was huge. News from Vietnam took on a whole different meaning then.
Later, when I talked about these soul-riveting moments with friends, a girlfriend admitted that her moment was the Boston Strangler. Bammer's didn't come until 1980, when John Lennon was murdered.
These time-stopping moments usually arrive when we least expect then, usually when we're the most self-absorbed. For my parents' generation, it was a routine Sunday morning when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
For my children it will probably be those constantly replayed moments of jetliners flying into the Twin Towers. My grandkids will have their own.
These moments come to us all, sometimes in groups but far more often individually. We can't stop them. All we can do is try to manage the devastation in a way that the world still offers us a glimmer of hope.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.
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