Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reading Silence: Dallas, November 22, 1963

We read so many things.

Obviously we read print – comics, novels, poems, short stories, memoirs, disquisitions on any number of topics, monographs, tax forms, car manuals, billboards, bus schedules, cook books and all manner of periodicals. We read the faces of strangers and those we love. Someone fly fishing reads a stream. A golfer reads a green. A quarterback reads a defense. Those who look to the sky try to read its weather. All of us, including politicians, try to read the past for what it will say about the future. And of course, moment by moment, we read the present for its cues (red light, stop), its dangers (not that ski slope, it’s too steep), and for whatever this moment-by-moment might add to our general knowledge. This reading of the present can be exhausting, which is why we establish habit and routines; they free us from the vigilant attention that reading the present can otherwise require. Those same routines can numb us, which is one reason travel can wake us.

Fifty years ago this week, John Kennedy was shot, and the twelve year old I was then has not and will not ever fully recover from it. Such an event experienced at such an age alters one’s view of what is possible. Over a long life, other events, private ones, equal it in intensity. But that November run of days stands out for me as a series of firsts, its events coming so rapidly they could not be attended to, presented so publicly they saturated every physical and emotional space; to escape them was not possible – there was nowhere to turn.

We were released from school early that day, a Friday, the nuns trying not to cry in our presence, their lips moving in prayer even as they ushered us up the bus steps. The television was on in my house when I got home, and it stayed on all that day and the next and the next. I recall those images, ones now familiar for being so often replayed, and seeing them again this week brings me close to tears, for I see that twelve year old boy and know again his deep confusion. Beyond those images what stays with me is the silence in the house, the silence outside, the silence in streets and stores and even as we stopped in the car for gas. No desultory talk. Everyone quieted. We all of us kept the television on in a futile effort to fill that silence with something like understanding, and what we got were police reports, repetitious statements of shock, of disbelief, the movements of a new president and a new widow, Lee Harvey Oswald shot in the stomach, speculation, constitutional explanations, reactions of world leaders, the planning for a funeral and the funeral itself.

What we did not get that weekend were directions about how to understand this new-to-us country, this United States where in our lifetime, now, a president could be shot. Without the need to ever say this to ourselves, we had believed such an event impossible. We had seen this president avert nuclear war, another previously impossible possibility. In some real way he had saved the world. And now he was dead because of someone with a rifle, a good eye, a steady hand.

Since that run of days in 1963, the world has seemed to me precarious in a way that I’ve become accustomed to but still don’t like. Perhaps this is merely that sort of maturity, which, it seems, comes only at cost. The memorials, interviews, and archival footage replayed this week invoke again that silence which was our only answer to questions we could not think how to ask. It is a large silence – one I yet struggle to read.

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