Our eternal flame

WASHINGTON — By now, most of the world has digested the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and millennials can sigh relief that another such re-examination is at least 10 years away.

While most recent books and films have covered Kennedy’s life and the mysteries that remain, an equally compelling exploration is why people who were alive and cognizant at the time are still obsessed with events surrounding the 35th president. What is it that makes his presidency and death so profound for millions? Neither the truth nor the myth of the man seems to matter as much as the deeply personal experience of hearing the words:

“President Kennedy is dead.”

“A death in the family” is how many have described that day and this is as accurate as any explanation, especially for people who were children then. The president and Mrs. Kennedy were more than the nation’s first family; they were our parents, too. We identified with the children and looked up to the grown-ups. In my own home, President Kennedy seemed to be about the age of my father, “a Kennedy Democrat,” though the president was actually seven years older. I thought my mother every bit as beautiful and refined as Mrs. Kennedy.

Thus, when Kennedy died, we lost our symbolic father and our grief was for ourselves as well as the Kennedys. We observed and absorbed Jacqueline Kennedy’s grace and dignity; we felt her children’s loss as our own. Not only had we lost the leader of our nation, but our idealized notion of the American family was shattered. At the time, no one knew of JFK’s dalliances, but even if they had, men in those days were allowed latitudes that today would land them in rehab and an eternal limbo of contrition.

As is required by such remembrances, I was in seventh-grade P.E. when an announcement came over the P.A. system. I don’t remember the precise words, but a sudden silence fell over the locker room. I do remember that, for a guilty moment, I felt enormous relief that, for whatever reason, I was being spared the daily horror of the group shower.

Shortly thereafter, my older brother and a friend, our junior high’s honor guard, lowered the flag to half-staff.

Home later that Friday afternoon, the full impact of events settled in. My father, who had navigated us through bomb-shelter drills during the Cuban missile crisis, was silent and somber. Two days later, as we all gathered in front of the TV that had been on nonstop, we witnessed the utterly shocking moment when Jack Ruby sprang forward from a crowd and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the gut. Oswald and the president were buried the same day, though members of the press had to serve as Oswald’s pallbearers since no one except his family showed up.

To children of the era, who were accustomed to seeing people “shot” in plenty of TV shows — always for the good when “Bonanza’s” Cartwrights were forced to draw — this was instantly recognizable as something terribly different. Not only had someone killed our beloved father-president, but we had just watched someone shot in real time with a real gun resulting in a real death. To today’s Internet generation, many of whom may have witnessed beheadings, hangings and worse on YouTube or in real time, this may seem pallid stuff. But to people of relative innocence, these two events were numbing and horrifying.

Individually, we would never be the same.

After the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) and Bobby Kennedy (died June 6, 1968), we became a different people — frightened and anesthetized against hope. Adding to my personal sense of doom, my 18-year-old brother had left in January 1968 for Vietnam and a tour of Khe Sanh with the Marine Corps.

These were fractious times, to be sure, but more than that, they were deeply sad times, even more so in retrospect. Our murdered leaders, our 58,000 dead brothers, sons, husbands, fathers and uncles. It seemed we had come to mark time by the dead.

It should be little wonder, then, that we can’t shed these memories. They are in our bones. The eternal flame that burns at Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery is a tribute not only to a man but to a lost time when life held promise. To Americans of a certain age, there really was once a spot, for one brief shining moment, known as Camelot.

It is hard to let go.

Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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