Perhaps my earliest vivid childhood memory took place fifty years ago today.
I was four and a half years old (back then, the “half” still seemed significant), standing next to my mother in the family room of our home in Long Beach, California. Mom was sitting on her knees on the carpeting in front of the television. She was crying.
We were watching president Kennedy’s funeral procession. This was the first time in my then-rather-new life that I realized bad things really can happen in the world. Our president had been shot and killed. I didn’t really grasp the significance of losing a president, but I did grasp that it was bad enough to make my mom cry. And worse, I grasped that a little boy, even younger than I, had lost his dad. It didn’t matter that the boy was only three, or that today was his birthday, or that his dad was the president. His dad was dead and my mom was crying.
My own dad was away at work, but I had a nagging worry, a realization, that someday, I might lose my dad. I knew my dad had lost his father when he was only thirteen years old. Now this little boy on television, who like me, was named after his father, had just lost his dad when he was barely three! That’s a pretty upsetting possibility for a four (and a half) year old to contemplate. (And, as it turned out, a pretty upsetting actuality for a forty-nine year old to experience.)
I stood there watching, for a while, next to my mom. Eventually, while the flag draped casket moved slowly along the procession route, I asked my mom if there was anything good on TV, like maybe Astro Boy. That made her smile, laugh a little, and give me a hug, despite her crying. “No,” she said, “this is what’s on now.”
I went outside to play.