Saturday, November 23, 2013

Kennedy Shot Dead

I was in suburban (i.e., Jewish) Montreal, writing a ninth-grade history exam at a public (i.e., Protestant) high school, when the music teacher, a normally cheerful Scot, Mr. McGee, came into our classroom around 2 PM and whispered something serious in my home room teacher's ear. The latter, Mr. Waterman, was lanky, awkward, mustachioed--a lower-rung Brit or Australian--anyway, a teacher of English literature with a Commonwealth accent, which seemed good enough for us. He was obviously taken aback ("Really?") by what McGee had told him, but then looked, now that I think about it, a little like a John Cleese character being successfully contradicted: a faint-fake smile, implying, but failing at, imperturbability.

At 3 PM, when the exam was over, Mr. Waterman immediately hushed us to attention and said half-apologetically, as if crossing a boundary by bringing American "current events" into a Canadian high school: "I don't know if you all think this is important, well, I do: President Kennedy was shot dead today in Texas."

The phrase "shot dead" still feels tactless. Villains are shot dead. Liberty Valance was shot dead. John Kennedy seemed to me above that: my first impulse was that this was a strange Mr. Waterman cruelty, like Shakespearian drama. I could at first not absorb the idea that President Kennedy's body could be wounded. Oh, I knew he had hurt his back planting a tree in Ottawa. But that was a sign of his will, his vigor (that perfect word). He seemed to me--going on fifteen, a fat kid who had willed himself to leanness--corporeal only in the sense that you needed a body to embody virtues, save buddies on PT-109, pat a child's head, or wink and smile through a press conference.

My Bialystoker father, self-taught, driven, but also tortured by failures and not much around, had been no match for Kennedy--or Koufax or Cronkite, Beliveau or Parr. These men, too, seemed to me more manhood than men. For my father, Kennedy was his father's invention and Joe Kennedy was no friend to the Jews. But I didn't need another moral from our lachrymose history. I needed to grow. I had studied Kennedy like someone preparing for a role.

Back in 1960, I had watched the first presidential debate, determined that, yes, free men should defend to the death Kimoi and Matsu; I won a sixth grade essay contest, recapitulating Kennedy's presidential victory, comparing his moves to a chess game. By the fall of 1963, I had read Theodore White's version, faked sickness to stay home to watch his Berlin speech, and knew Vaughn Meader's recording by heart. ("Now, let me say this about thaht.") To say that I could not love him because I was a Montrealer was like saying I should not love elegance. Kennedy had given me ideas pretty much the way Angie Dickinson had.

I left school in a daze, boarded my bus home, and sat in a quiet panic. In the front of the bus sat the local bully, Lenny Dubrofsky, whom I was mostly afraid to mess with. He was, true to form, but still, stupefyingly, joking about the assassination the way he might about a television farce. I was seized with an ecstatic fury I had never known. I pounced on him, trying, not very successfully, to wipe that smile off his face by strangling his overcoat. By the time we were pulled apart, I realized that bravery was overrated. I had defended what seemed sacred, but Lenny was still there, and Kennedy was still shot dead.

I came home and my mother was there, as ever, simple, lost, heavy with sincerity. She was usually no comfort. But this time she said, quietly, "Such a shame." I put my head on her shoulder and wept from the soles of my feet for what seemed many minutes. I thought: I am crying, even on my poor mother; it was for the last time, as things turned out. Then I started watching CBS News, my new birth parents.

That night, I went to my father's apartment for Friday dinner, and we watched some more. "He'll go down in history," my father said, knowingly, as if history was what mattered. Later, Lyndon Johnson emerged before the cameras: "I ask your help--and God's." Ugly, I thought. History is ugly.