The first time I learned about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy I was a little boy. My father kept a book about JFK on a shelf in the living room. In it was the famous photograph of Kennedy waving to the crowds as his motorcade made its way through Dealey Plaza.
Years would pass before I understood the full impact of the president’s assassination; that time came when I was a freshman in high school. I was listening to the radio on December 9, 1980. John Lennon had been shot dead the previous evening. From John Kennedy to Bobby Kennedy, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, and, years later, John Lennon, I developed a growing sense that anyone remotely associated with changing the world for the better ended up dying.
My father never talked to me about Kennedy’s assassination; nor did he ever mention, except in passing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and other public figures. It wasn’t that he didn’t care; perhaps it had more to do with protecting his children from the ills of the world. Later, after he died, my mother told me a story about how on the day Kennedy was killed my grandfather walked through Yorkship Village to my parents’ house, knocked on the door, and asked to speak to my father. My mother invited her father-in-law in, but my grandfather, so the story goes, insisted that he wait for my father on the common across the street.
It was a Friday afternoon. My mother said that a silence had fallen over the town that day, much as it did in many parts of the country, and my grandfather and my father stood for what my mother thought must have been at least two hours quietly talking.
It has been fifty years since the assassination of President Kennedy, fifty years since my grandfather knocked on my parents’ door and then spoke to his son about what had happened in Dallas earlier that day. I will never know the content or the context of that conversation, a conversation that I imagine happened with many fathers and sons across the country. Whatever wisdom may have been shared between my father and his father, I still wish would have been passed on to me. One day in the future I may have to knock at my son’s door. It would help to know what words to say…