Let’s go back to Valley City, North Dakota. The date is November 23, 1963, the day after Dallas’s welcoming party shot John Kennedy in the head. I stand by the leaf pile in the back driveway with my dad and my brother. People mourn everywhere. It didn’t matter how you voted, or if you were European, Asian, African or South American. Saturday, November 23 was not a good day. By the day after, the terrible event sank in. Everyone felt terrible. How could it happen? I bet the welcoming party felt pretty good, though.
The leaves were brown. We had several large oak trees at the back of that yard. I’d like to return to Valley City. I’d like to go back there before I die. We had a big brick barbecue with a chimney in the back yard, and a round green picnic table. We didn’t eat there that often, probably because the mosquitoes pestered us back there. The oak trees gathered around that barbecue. I wonder if it’s all still there.
I had a happy upbringing in Valley City. My wife calls it the Happy Valley, but that weekend was not happy. You want your birthday to be happy, but this one was not. The murder occurred on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was headed down the long hallway of Washington Elementary School to eat lunch in the gym when the first bullet hit Kennedy. Saturday we raked some leaves and brought them out to the pile in the back – the last leaves of the fall season in North Dakota.
How could it happen? We never recovered, people say, we never found our way again. One leader after another fell to assassins: Malcolm, Martin, and Bobby. Civil rights workers lynched. Churches and campuses firebombed. Kent State students shot. Fifty thousand young men killed in Vietnam before we were done. Trouble begets trouble, murder begets murder, and war begets war.
So how could the 1960s have given us so little and so much: so little to claim, so much to regret? We made it to the moon on Kennedy’s pronouncement. It was a tribute and memorial for him. He said we would do it, and we showed that the power of his leadership extended well beyond his death. Every other hope died in discouragement. We lost in Vietnam, and that war destroyed two more presidents, too. Who wants to be president, now that we’ve shown what happens when people hate you, fear or distrust you, or the ignominy that follows if you lose a war?
Everything seems so compressed back in that driveway. The space behind the house feels constricted in my memory. The house had a large side yard. We used to play football in it. It was covered with snow all winter, but boy did we make use of it during the summer and the fall. The seasons came and went up there, and we didn’t have any inkling about what waited for us when we left.
The television was on all weekend. I don’t even know when the funeral was. It was Sunday or Monday. JFK was buried on Monday, November 25. He lay in state on Sunday. Remember the famous picture of John Jr. saluting his father at age 3? It’s a sad and evocative picture. The television was Valley City’s link to the rest of the world. The newspaper, the Valley City Times Record, was so thin. We didn’t even subscribe to the Fargo Forum. We did have the Minneapolis Tribune on Sundays. But the television was it that weekend. Everything we knew about the events in Dallas and Washington came to us from Walter Cronkite and CBS News. The television was in our sunroom.
My parents kept checking it. We children were just at loose ends. We knew something terrible had happened, but we couldn’t really comprehend what. It was too big an event for us. I was nine years old that year. My brothers and sister were seven, five, and three. We just made it through the weekend together, but we grasped its significance no better than young children grasped 9/11 when that happened.
At some point, my brother and my dad and I went inside from that pile of leaves. The air was always chilly in North Dakota at that time of year. All the leaves were down. The pile of leaves back there wasn’t all that large. It was back behind the bushes, to the left of the garbage cans. My dad was only 39 years old. Can you believe that more than forty-two years have passed since then? I turned nine that year, now I’m fifty-two. It’s time to prepare.
Steven Greffenius writes for The Jeffersonian, Next Free Voice, and Pacific Sunrise. Preview his recent books, Revolution on the Ground and Revolution in the Air, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Apple Books. To contact Steve, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.