Like all Americans my age and older, I remember where I was in November 1963. I was five years old, living in Arlington, Virginia (in a house my family called the White House because it was. . .well. . .white), attending first grade at a little Lutheran school that my parents sent me to because my near-Christmas birthday put me well past the public school cutoff date and they didn’t want me to wait another year.
The first weekend of that November, we went on an excursion into Washington, D.C. The reason and the destination are long gone. What I remember is that we were on Independence Avenue, one of the broad boulevards that border the Mall, when traffic was stopped by motorcycle policemen. We got out of our car to see what was happening. As we got to the cross street where traffic was stopped, a motorcade went by. In the rear window of the second or third car, I saw a young boy sitting on an adult’s lap, and the adult’s hand waving out the window. The hand was that of President Kennedy and the boy was John, Jr., then known as John-John.
Three weeks later, I came home from school on Friday afternoon, walked into the kitchen, and found my mother sitting on a stool and leaning on the counter. She was glued to the radio and had tears streaking her face. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “The President is dead.”
I have earlier memories, but those two stand out for obvious reasons.
Twenty years later, in November of 1983, I was back in Washington, D.C., this time as a Legislative Assistant to then-U.S. Senator Slade Gorton. He was a moderate Republican back when that term had meaning. Congress then was more civil, if no more productive, than it is today. It civilly recessed for Thanksgiving on Friday, November 18. So the following Tuesday, November 22, was very quiet.
It was quiet enough that around ten in the morning I left my office on Capitol Hill and drove across the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery. Whatever memorial events may have been planned must have been set for later in the day because the place was deserted. So on the twentieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, chilly and gray, I had a solid half-hour at his grave site entirely by myself.
I remember trying that day to gin up a good insight or two and coming up with nothing. Eventually, I pulled my coat around me, watched a few more leaves blow across the grave site plaza and left. But I’d gotten to be alone with my country for a few minutes. It turned out that my country was an inscrutable conversationalist, but I was glad for the company. Sometime today, I’m going close my eyes and head back to that place for a few minutes. If you have the time, I hope you’ll come with me.