Circulating in on the Internet these days, at least in my circles, is “22 Signs You Were Raised by Stephen Sondheim.” (Thank you, Dale.) No. 9 might induce a few cringes this weekend: “You know more about former presidential assassins than former presidents,” illustrated by video clip of “The Ballad of Booth” from Sondheim’s musical “Assassins.” At the age of 8 going on 9, I learned about both.
“Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?” is the “Where were you on 9/11?” of my generation, though I can answer that one, too. In both cases, the moment of impact is the dividing line between the time when everything was normal and the time when everything had changed.
American kids in 1963 were no strangers to national crisis. We had already lived through the Cuban missile crisis. At Bushkill Township Elementary School, we had practiced what to do in case of nuclear attack: file out to crawl spaces in the school building, where we would have to stay for 55 days, and of course our parents would all be dead. The boys threw spiders at the girls, and I was shocked to see our teacher wearing shorts for the drills.
Nov. 22 was a Friday that year, too. As I left my third grade classroom around 2:30 in the afternoon, looking forward to our weekly trip to the Acme Market, little blond Cheryl ran up to me and lisped, “Kenny got shot! Kenny got shot!”
“Who’s Kenny?” I asked. It took a couple of minutes to figure it out. The flow of news was slow in those days; television was not standard equipment in elementary-school classrooms.
When the school bus dropped me off at home, my mother said we wouldn’t be going to the Acme: “Everything’s closed.” I turned on the TV. “Don’t bother,” she said, clearly exasperated. “There’s nothing on. They’re just showing his picture and playing music.” Oddly, my father, too, was home instead of patrolling the township in his police car.
We and the rest of the country stayed glued to our sets for the weekend and beyond. On Sunday, as my mother fried eggs and bacon for breakfast after church, my father and I witnessed the assassination of an assassin. Monday, as I recall, was the funeral: Black Jack, the riderless horse; “Hail to the Chief” slowed to a dirge; the drumbeats pacing the procession. In their cadence, I heard the rhythm of a cheer for our local high school’s sports teams: We’re from Nazareth/Couldn’t be prouder/ Come on, boys,/Let’s cheer it louder. Only the fourth line didn’t fit that beat; in my head, it became Let’s cheer, cheer it loud.
Thursday was Thanksgiving, a dozen or so people at our house as usual. (We did Christmas at my aunt’s.) I don’t remember much about it, but I suspect it had the same air of not knowing what we were supposed to do as the Thanksgiving after 9/11. That first awkward holiday past, we moved on to Christmas, New Year, my birthday. Life went on.
That summer, my parents and I visited the gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery and saw the Eternal Flame firsthand. I’ve seen it a number of times since — sometimes on school trips, most recently with my German friends, the Muench family, on our way north after a week on the Outer Banks. “Do you remember that time?” I asked, then realized what a foolish question it was. None of them had been born yet, and in any case, what coverage the assassination would have received in Communist East Germany was questionable. (There is now a Kennedy museum in reunified Berlin.)
I can’t say I’m pleased that I remember so vividly something that happened 50 years ago. But having those memories makes me — all of us — a part of history. For another musical, “Pacific Overtures,” Sondheim wrote “Someone in a Tree,” about the boy who witnessed the signing of the pact opening Japan to the West in 1854 from a tree just outside the treaty house:
Without someone in a tree
Nothing happened here.
In our time, that would be “someone watching TV.”
This Friday, Nov. 22, was swim day. As I walked along the Hudson River to the pool, I found myself singing not songs from “Chicago” or “The Fantasticks,” as I normally do when passing Jerry Orbach’s resting place in Trinity Cemetery, but the bitter line “Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine . . .” from “Assassins.” In fact the sun was trying to peek out through a gloomy cloud cover appropriate to the day.
I had left for the pool an hour earlier than usual because it just didn’t seem right to be doing water aerobics at 1:30 when the moment came. I don’t know what I was expecting would happen — church bells ringing? Swimmers pausing in their laps for a moment of silence? Having to stop them myself to explain what this moment in time was all about? The public-address system was tested — preparation for an announcement an hour later? I’ll never know.
When the moment came, I was already walking home, facing the bridge named for a president who had died peacefully in his bed. Once again, life went on. Just after the 3 p.m. news, WQXR played the overture to “Camelot.” And then I went to work at a play about a thane who murders a king.
When I arrived in the locker room that day, a group of little girls had just finished dressing after their swim lesson. They looked about 8 going on 9 — just the age I was on Nov. 22, 1963.