Where Were You When JFK Was Shot?
by April Renee Lynch
I think about dead presidents more than most citizens of this country, I suspect. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon-their dormant past has paved the way to my living present. Even the phrase dead presidents conflates my notions of death with the living reminder of a Hughes brothers' mid-1990s film of the same name. Dead presidents represent, like the used currency that was the subject of the movie's heist, Goya's sleeping Reason. The sleep of reason produces monsters, said the artist; once one has negotiated this obstacle, bright living begins.
My first memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States, is wrapped up in a half-remembered dream. And, to complicate matters, this memory-wrapped-in-dream is so intimately involved-in my imagination-with the 26-second, eight-millimeter Abraham Zapruder film of national legend that it's difficult for me to divide memory from dream from movie.
I think about John Kennedy while I am served at the Java City Cafe on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco's Ingleside district. The Middle-Eastern man who prepares my hummus wrap recognizes me as the woman who wrote her Master's thesis on ancient Greek art history; he greets me two years after the fact. It is gratifying to be warmly remembered.
The dream-the one I remember-is simple. In the black-and-white, kinescopic medium of my mind, JFK appears as a "talking head" newscaster, his face incongruously made up in powder pink. I had always thought the president almost disreputably handsome: Perhaps this was the reason for my childish association of traditionally girls' coloring with male facial features. The memory about which the dream is wrapped is also simple. It takes place around the year 1961, in a Zapruder-esque motorcade. But is Jacqueline Kennedy scrambling madly over the trunk of a limousine, her face chiaroscuroed by shadow and panic? What comes to mind in memory and in truth is that Jack Kennedy and his First Lady had come to visit my hometown of Seattle, Washington. In memory, though perhaps not in truth, they are traveling the streets of our city in an open car. They pass right by my house at 1839 24th Avenue, East and wave at groups of folk who have gathered to watch them pass. I look down at the First Couple from the hill of our front yard; maybe I, shy first-grader that I am, wave back and smile.
I fast forward, again using the technology of my media-driven brain, to November 22nd of the year 1963. I am a third-grader, on the waiting list for St. Agnes School, cooling my heels at recess in the schoolyard of Dudley Stone Elementary. Torn between the attentions of my two best friends of the time-Cena Golden, the denizen of a two-story, Haight Street walk-up, and a young Seventh - day Adventist, name unremembered-I am probably in the midst of trying emotional times when one of our teachers comes out. She says something: Children, the President has just been shot. I am shocked. Does one shoot a president? History-book documentation of Abraham Lincoln does not, at this point, enter my mind.
The Java City Cafe hummus wrap is tasty; I chew slowly. What must be the word, in Nahud the wrap-maker's language, for garbanzo? I decide that this is a better question to ask of him than his whereabouts at the end of November, 40 years ago. He probably had not even been born.
We children wander over to sit on the outdoor benches as time slowly passes. The business of school has stopped. We wait for more news to be given to us by means of the teachers. Radio and television coverage trickle down to us through these arbiters of textbook authority. Finally another teacher comes out to us: The President has died, she says. From this moment forward, my personal relationship with Camelot ceases. Lee Harvey Oswald, crazed Jack Ruby, Lyndon Johnson and the young, tearful widow Kennedy-little John-John saluting his father's horse-drawn coffin: All these persons image themselves out to me from history's kinescopic litany. They ceased to be a part of myself; the words The President has died functioned as a sort of continental divide, directing the flow of my life away from the actual tragedy.
I started out, during my mental wanderings, with the phrase My first memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. What follows, in point of fact, is not entirely mine. It is the sum total of what I experienced first-hand, what was told to me by others, and what was communicated to me (as well as the wide world) by the mass media. Many times the important moments of our lives, which seem to have that owned-by-myself quality, are composites of the information we receive from various sources. The kinescopic litany, as I called it, was the source from which I received so much knowledge about a tragic figurehead. Jack Kennedy's legacy to me was the gift of many hopeful ideas about liberal politics; I was too young at the time to realize how deep that river ran. Perhaps JFK's continuing legacy to the nation-liberal and conservative-is that setting the bar high runs counter to the forces of destruction and death.