Friday, November 22, 2013

The Long Weekend

©  Steve King
All rights reserved

            You glance idly at your calendar and note with some surprise that November 22nd has come again and gone.  The mind reacts without conscious application, leading your thoughts to a rarely visited inner sphere where you sometimes draw a fine focus on events long past.  In this constrained light, the seventy-two hours spanning that Friday and Monday afternoon seem at first to be collapsed into one long, monolithic instant.  But as you watch, unforgettable images begin to compete for primacy in the rising jumble of thoughts, the mix of old emotions that pull you back to a strange point in time.

            Tallying the years since then, you realize that people not yet born that distant afternoon have grown and raised up children—and grandchildren-- of their own.  Soon, a second full generation will know of this thing only through the slick gloss of magazine pages, or from the quaking imagery of the Zapruder film.  The event itself, one of the great tremors at the epicenter of what you felt and thought in the years that formed you, will live on directly only in middle aged or older memories, and soon enough will linger nowhere.

            For many of those of the right age, the memory, even with its immense sadness, is cherished, perhaps like an expired passport to some once-visited land of pleasant recollection.  It is proof of passage, with an indelible stamp demarking 'before' and 'since.'  Whatever the details of one's own personal odyssey in the interim, each fresh perception of that cold November slows the inevitable process whereby the vibrant spirits of that age slip from the ever-now of your consideration on their way to joining all the other quaint sepia-tinged portraits that crowd the attic of our national imagination. 

            By extension, this is of course just another attempt to preserve some young and distant image of ourselves--against the odds, we know, since the very essence of our train of thought rises from the recollection of full and bloody mortality.  Still, we do our best.

            Assassination, regicide, the assault on sovereign republicanism, cold and systematic death, each of these has a weight of its own that presses on the observant conscience, issues of specific motive and denouement notwithstanding.  It seems therefore ridiculous that the event is of interest to scores of millions only insofar as it can be linked to Castro, the CIA, the mafia or, ideally, some diabolic combine of the three.  This needless tendency to hyper-dramatize the event has made it fashionable to deride the Warren Commission Report with its obdurate insistence on the singular marksmanship of Mr. Oswald that noon hour.  No doubt there were stones—boulders—left unturned in the Commissioners' rush to satisfy and unify the dazed nation.  But who can truly blame the authors for not rising above the convenient wisdom of the day, especially once the hasty presumption of Oswald's guilt became unassailable, we brunching with TV and the Sunday comics, he strolling out to early public execution.

            In the light of retrospect, who really cares what the Report reported?  'Fair Play for Cuba' and the anomaly of the grassy knoll; Tippit, Ruby, Curry and the rest; the autopsy, the strange trigonometry of the two (or three?) projectiles?  These and all the other 'facts' are just crumbs on the table of this feast of history-in-passing.  When weighed against the monumental nature of the crime itself, a trial and the subsequent exacting of official vengeance—though filling a proper legal and technical purpose—were bound to fail any fair test of emotional satisfaction, in all probability serving only to excite the worst excesses of sensational journalism and speculative commentary.

            No.  At the last, full knowledge of the crime and a strict allocation of culpability would not have been enough to transform decades of memory. 

            Much of the strongest imagery is of the pageantry, the high drama of the passing of tangible force; the sheer spectacle of the survival of State, melding an eerie sense of courtly ceremony with the raw power and grim determinism of inevitable historical succession—an admixture of Arthur and Shakespeare, if you like, well suited to a prince of any epoch.  All of it overriding the puny contingencies of human indulgence and of the shattered protagonists in the lesser, merely human, drama.

            What contradictions were endured through those days:  the power of death to deny life, and the exuberant life of the body-politic rebounding to refute the verdict of the grave; a Friday to mourn and a Monday to remember; one bookend tragedy and the other splendor.  This conflict of dualities has always animated the greatest achievements in human art and understanding.  The weekend was foreordained to mimic this dynamic, echoing the lessons from those throughout history who have thought most and deepest about life and death.  At the same time, through its interweaving of pathos and grandeur, it redefined the scope of our own imaginations and lives as we readied to make our way, collectively and as individuals, out of what is now merely the past.

            Yet, even the most majestic panoply needs an audience.  The most lasting rituals are also the ones that seem to be most interactive.  Thanks to the long reach of television, we were part of it, and each step along the way to Arlington seemed to have been contrived to reach deeply into the experience of the scores of millions of individual hearts whose common beat was, and is, the pulse of the nation.

            Yes, you were there, a part of that pulse; and though your heart has been transformed in many ways in the intervening years, the beat goes on.  No matter where you've been or where you are, no matter what you've done in the time since, this one day each year you find yourself standing alone again, a part of that vast and silent throng lining Pennsylvania Avenue.  You wonder when this community of mourning will end. 

            Maybe this time will be the last.


            In recent years, you've found that many of the details seem to have grown a little less distinct.  More and more, that small inner sphere, the place where the fine focus comes and goes, is waning toward the dark.  Even so, you suspect that some things will always stay.  For now, you are left with this:

            The muffled drum.

            The ancient caisson.

            A riderless black horse with all of history in its wake.



  1. So true, Steve. Impossible to under-rate how much this changed the course of our collective culture, and our individual lives. I was 14--what an age to see (an almost idyllic) order overcome by chaos, mourning dignified to pageant and symbol, a burying of so much more than a single human being..then the rapid-fire continuation of shocks as leader after leader was taken down. By the time MLK fell, the mind was in many ways numbed, and conditioned to believe ALL the good die young--in a dark mirror, Joplin, Hendrix and a thousand others underlining the message--excel, and you will pay a price..but I digress. Excellent musings, deep and full of thought.Thanks for sharing the memory.

  2. Great write ... Singular moments like this (and there are others, like VJ-Day and 9/11) do rouse a diffuse civilization into a momentary order, a sense of unity ... DeLillo I think said that conspiracy theories were part of that urge for cohesion, or what Wallace Stevens would call a rage for order. (Yet it's just an illusion, me sitting with my entire elementary school in some auditorium watching the funeral on a single TV, and whatever the rest of the country was doing at that time.) We do have technology to thank for the means of solidarity -- live TV broadcasting that solemn caisson -- and for the precise timing of the event, it shows the paradox of time, how something so sharply defined for us is in another way timeless, so that 50 years vanishes as we watch those images again. - Brendan

  3. Hi Steve, thanks very much. I have actually written a fair amount about both this one and the other two in 68. It is interesting that people who did not live through those times really do have a hard time understanding the magnitude of those events--JFK, MLK, Bobbie--and of how incredibly personal it felt. And even with all of that, it does slip away. And the Warren Commission as you say pales compared to the impact of it all just happening. Thanks. k.

    ps --i did a 55 last week on the actual event. But, of course, so brief. And I wrote a whole novel about 68--but haven't published. It is somehow just too personal. k.

  4. Steve, what a moving recollection and reflection. I can remember...almost as if it were yesterday. Your words truly impacted me as I read them this morning, putting me right back into that time of mourning for what had been, for what was lost, for the fragility of life, and the ability of a nation to move on.

  5. I enjoyed your reflections Steve on that memorable time, changing the course of US history ~ How fast time has passed & changed but moments like this are always part of our own journey ~ Thanks for sharing your lovely thoughts, specially the ending ~ Have a good week ~


  6. "Yes, you were there, a part of that pulse; and though your heart has been transformed in many ways in the intervening years, the beat goes on."

    Yes, the beat goes on, each year punctuated by that date. Though much from years between has faded, this moment remains forever crisp. I love how you finalized this, for in the end it's not the politics, the forensics or the conspiracies theories. It is the man lost, the nation mourning, the lone horse…and Camelot was no more.

    Very thoughtful and well written, Steve.