There are few moments that can bond an entire country in personal grief. So traumatic the event, so immeasurable the hurt that it drives an ache so deep that years seem unable to diminish it. In most cases it is the death of people we never met that affect us as if they were part of our immediate family.
The Challenger, 9/11, and the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
About a year ago I was asked to share my thoughts on the assassination of JFK for the book, "We'll Never Be Young Again...Remembering the Last Days of John F. Kennedy" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR ). When I ran through the table of contents, I could appreciate what an honor it had been to be asked to contribute. When I read the personal stories, I began to understand how so many divergent individuals, experiencing the event(s) from so many different points of views, ended up sharing feelings so remarkably similar.
Authors Chuck Fries and Irv Wilson, have had more than a passing familiarity with the JFK years. Veteran film and TV producers with over a hundred films under their belts, Fries produced the "what if" examination of JFK's assassination with TV's The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and Wilson produced the Cuban missile crisis drama The Missiles of October.
Their own experience with the November 22nd that drained the air out of the country has always kept the memory relevant to both of them. During his research for the The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, Fries, from a large Catholic family like Kennedy, found himself in Dallas. He peered out the Texas Book Depository window where the motorcade rolled by as Oswald took aim, walked on the grassy knoll and wandered through Parkland Hospital where JFK was pronounced dead. Wilson couldn't help relating it to when, as a thirteen year old, he had to tell his father that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. When news of Kennedy's death first came in, he pictured his father's face from 18 years before.
It lead them to ponder how their friends, many of them celebrities, were affected. They began to collect the first person thoughts from names like actors Charleton Heston, Jerry Lewis, Liz Smith, Anne Jackson/Eli Wallach, Cliff Robertson (who played the young JFK in PT 109) and writers Garry Marshall, Aaron Spelling, Dominick Dunne, astronaut Wally Schirra, singer Robert Goulet, and comic Vaughn Meader (who did JFK voice in the hit album The First Family). They then began to bring in those who were actually part of the Kennedy administration like Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and White House photographer, Cecil Stoughton.
It soon mushroomed into an exploration of a wide cross section of people, both famous and obscure offering so many examples of how the tragedy moved a generation, broke down the political and social divide, joined the powerful and the powerless, almost as if great hurt had some magical power to unite the ununitable.
While some reflected on Kennedy's life and how we were moved us action, like Senator John Kerry, ("After he finished speaking, I immediately signed up as a volunteer.") "We'll Never Be Young Again" reads like a personal diary of a country suffering an unhealable emotional wound.
A wound that brought a new perspective on the future. "When Kennedy was shot, I worried about the future of the world that I was bringing my daughter into," wrote Garry Marshall.
A wound that changed how we looked at the world. "I will never forget that moment or the overwhelming despair that enveloped my soul. On Sunday my children witnessed an unexpected actual murder on television, the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and I realized the world would never be the same again," said actress Janet Leigh. "We had all been robbed of our innocence ."
A wound that created sullen images we can never erase. Said Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., Secretary of US Air Force, "There were no flowers, only music, only the murmur of hushed voices and the shuffle of feet. It was the saddest place and the saddest time in our lives."
A wound that made us alone and together all at the same time. "My most vivid memory of that day was the train ride from Penn Station to Great Neck. Every single rider on that packed commuter train sat in complete silence. No one, not one person, talked the entire trip," wrote A Woman Called Golda and Nuremberg producer, Jerry Abrams.
There are many books out now examining JFK's legacy, the leadership vacuum left from his passing, and of course, there are the many that continue to ask questions of conspiracies. But "We'll Never Be Young Again" just might be the only one that offers some insight into the commonality that comes from sorrow, from loss and exists in us all. One is left curious with the thought that it would be fascinating to see how we might one day tap into that commonality to bring us together in something other than collective grief.