Hi, Barb. Here now, but traveling rapidly down memory lane.
We’ve had duel anniversaries this week, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy and the 150th anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg address. Which means we’ve all been reading and thinking about these two events a lot. That’s completely appropriate for me, because in my mind the two are related.
LIke everyone my age, I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot. I was in a new school, having moved from Montclair, New Jersey to Wallingford, Pennsylvania that summer. My fifth grade teacher was a dedicated young woman named Mrs. Hull who influences me still. The school building was strange to me, a modern collection of “pods” rather than the classic brick edifice where I’d attended school in New Jersey. Mrs. Hull returned from a whispered conference in the hallway and like that, we were dismissed. No reason given.
It says a lot about the differences between that time and this one. For one thing, they assumed our mothers were home. Or at least they assumed if our particular mother was off at the market or doing volunteer work, the mother of a friend or a neighbor would take us in. They had also decided our parents should tell us what had happened, and that we’d somehow make it home without hearing. On this second point they were completely wrong.
We stood in the school parking lot, speculating like mad. Mothers arrived to pick kids up and we got snippets of the story. I dawdled, trying to get the full scoop, and when I and just a few others remained in the schoolyard, a six grader came over the small hill separating his home from the parking lot and played Taps on his trumpet. It was such a mournful sound, it haunts me to this day.
By the time I got home my mother and brother were there, watching the television. Which was another sea change. Today, when there’s a national tragedy, we head to our TVs, but I never remember that behavior before November 1963. The Cuban missile crisis had been background noise on the radio as grown-ups shot worried looks at one another over the tops of our heads. When John Kennedy was killed, we were glued to the television. It felt disloyal to turn it off. And as events kept unfolding, including the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV, we were compelled to continue watching.
The decade that followed the Kennedy assassination felt weirdly speeded up and full of change. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. The Viet Nam War escalated and the country tore itself in half. In May of 1970, four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State.
I left for a year as an exchange student in Colombia that fall, feeling heartsick and fearful for my country. It seems a little nuts now that the Rotary would cheerfully send an eighteen year-old to Colombia, but it was twenty years past La Violencia, riots following the assassination of their president which resulted in the deaths of 180,000 Colombians. Cocaine was just replacing marijuana as Colombia’s export drug. The cartels were there, but not nearly so powerful as they would become. Colombia was a democracy, albeit a brokered one. Everybody said the country was stable.
But I learned when I got there, all things are relative. In an incident so minor I can now find no traces of it on the Web, in the spring of 1971, a hiccup of some sort lead to estado de sitio, a government-declared state of siege. Freedom of speech and assembly were immediately suspended. Which meant, as we waited for the school bus, children were divided into small clumps of threes and fours, since a gathering of more than four people was unlawful. Even my large host family had to divide into groups as we walked through an outdoor market.
I had worried and fretted about what was going on in the US, but for all the conspiracy theories and the craziness, it has never occurred to me our democracy would end. That President Johnson wouldn’t succeed President Kennedy in an orderly manner. That I would ever lose the right to gather and protest, even if it was dangerous.
Speaking only seventy-four years after the ratification of the Constitution, in a world where most people were ruled by monarchs, and in the midst of a war to preserve the Union, President Lincoln had no such assurance when he gave his address at Gettysburg. His plea that government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth” is the culmination of that brief speech.
A hundred years later, I felt the security of living in the world’s oldest continuing democracy.
The years that followed were fraught. For the first time in history, an American president resigned. And we went on. He was pardoned, and we went on. In the television show, The Americans, when Ronald Reagan is shot and Alexander Haig declares that he’s in charge, the Russian spies the show depicts assume it is a coup. That’s the way regime change happens in totalitarian countries. My assumption, all along, was the Haig was mistaken and someone would straighten him out.
Since Lincoln spoke, the great monarchies of Europe have become democracies. The British Empire has all but disappeared. Since Kennedy’s death, the Soviet Union has collapsed. China has opened up. I was on vacation in Cuba this year, for goodness sake. Vacation.
We have gone on.
Pretty amazingly strong and resilient. Weirdly able to (eventually) course correct. I remind myself of this when I get discouraged. It’s a tribute to the people who got us here and a gift to us all.