It was 55 years ago, six days before Thanksgiving, that the world tilted on its axis as much as it did at any time before or since.
On the day usually dedicated to giving thanks, the nation mourned.
A young president was shot from ambush and American idealism died with him. He wasn’t just the president. He was an icon of his generation, a veteran of the last world war, husband to a beautiful wife with international renown, a father, a charismatic boychild raised in privilege in what had yet to be exposed as a perversion of the American dream.
The hideous public execution of that dream killed any illusion of entitled exceptionalism. Faith was shoved aside by fear and doubt and then a seething resentment that infected the public domain and has resisted healing to this day.
We are not safe. We don’t know who to trust. The official story line about who was responsible for the killing pointed to a triggerman who had no motive and buried much of the results of an in-house investigation deep in bureaucratic obfuscations.
Justice is not guaranteed. The generation that was hit the hardest by the assassination approached old age wondering who and what was worth all the effort that went into protecting the nation and the world from at least seeing the ineptitude of the investigatory processes.
Conspiracy theories persist. Was it the work of organized crime, retribution for broken deals that might have included Cuban ties? Or politics? Right wing opponents to civil rights actions? In-fighting among Democrats?
Why did Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald, the so-called shooter? How did he get close enough? We watched it happen in real time on television during a routine jail transfer. People sat in front of their black-and-white televisions, stunned and suddenly afraid of the future.
I recall the change in rhetoric following the assassination. Where political speech had been hot and reckless before, in the days following there were calls for a cooling-off of partisan passions. This was a nation that changed government leaders by ballots, not bullets. We desperately wanted to preserve that belief.
Then they killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the younger brother, the truer idealist, the bright light rising on the horizon.
News pundits told us to keep the faith and speak with respect to and about adversaries. They reminded us that this nation had disagreement in its DNA but had not only survived but thrived because of the healthy debate in open forums. It rang hollow because the blood stains were fresh on the pavements of American cities.
America talks more and listens less that it did in 1963. The 24-7 television news cycles beat the drums of doom when they are not titillating us with foibles of sexual misadventures or excesses of the rich and celebrated. Celebrity is valued more than character. We squander money on toys but have no budget for feeding the poor or even ensuring the safety of bridges, roads and rails used by commuters who refuse to live where they work.
More effort goes into creating ways to make machines do tasks that could employ humans than we expend on understanding the imbalances we create with rampant consumerism that poisons waters and foods and natural resources.
So, what am I thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day?
The last resort of a cynic is blind faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, even a crusted-over, dried up news warrior can still choose to believe that a generation is coming that will turn it all around and save the best that still lives in human hearts.
It won’t be the old guard that leads the way. The children will realize that nations are not enough when the world shrinks, now defined by hours of travel time instead of miles. That patriotism tarnishes when it turns to jingoism and religious absolutism kills the innocent.
I’m thankful for the future that I see in the faces of the young.