The JFK assassination and when events fade from memory into history

“It was a day I recall vividly like it was yesterday. We were, that very day, discussing the three branches of government (at a Miami high school) and the role of the President. I was making allusions to President Kennedy and the things he was doing when the announcement came over the speaker that he had been shot.
“I remember walking over to a window and standing and staring out the window for an extended period of time. No one said anything. It was completely silent. I remember then telling the students, ‘You will always remember this moment because what has just happened is one of the most momentous events in the history of this nation.”
–James A. Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, who was a 20-year-old teacher at the time of the assassination (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 1993)

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, my thoughts turn to two decades earlier, the 30th anniversary.

What I recall is reading, as a 10-year-old, the newspapers in 1993 on the living-room floor. JFK’s death was more visceral then, with conspiracy wars raging and many of the directly affected still alive, such as Jackie and both their children. Hell, WWII was still a living feature — the AP had a daily info box about “What happened 50 years ago today in WWII.” I wish I could find evidence of these articles outside my mind.

The main thing that stuck with me from those 30th anniversary articles I read at home was a section about how the event was fading from public memory and into history, as even then fewer than half of Americans living in 1993 were alive in 1963. The shift from present to past was already occurring.

On the 50th anniversary of significant events, there is more of a distance, but most of us still know someone who was involved or who at least was a living observer. From them, we get recollections not only about that day but about what has changed since. Those people are often elderly but remain active, robust representatives of the event and the times, much like Pearl Harbor or D-Day veterans at their 50th anniversary events.The Gettysburg 50th anniversary reunion best reflects this:

But after 50 years, for whatever reason, the anniversaries become a curio, more of a “Oh, hey, some of them are alive!” than a true gathering of principals to remember and reflect. In the end, the events are encapsulated and lived through the last survivors to tell their stories — and those of a generation — one last time.

The JFK assassination has none of the joy or accomplishment that other anniversaries have, and so its movement from current event to historical occurrence will likely go unmourned. Many of JFK’s advisers and confidantes are long dead. But moving past 50 years on is a significant shift nonetheless. The veterans of the Civil War, for instance, used to be more than black-and-white or sepia-toned poses, more than documents or Ken Burns-panned letters.We can still get close to what they went through, but only so close. The same for World War I and, soon, World War II.

And, hard as it is may be to comprehend, 9/11 will one day be that thing that happened to other people.

What is the upside of time fading into memory? Perhaps it’s that we can better evaluate when we gain distance. We can appreciate what we have now that’s better and work to recapture whatever we’ve lost from those times. In the case of Kennedy’s death, we can be grateful that his event is so singular because it hasn’t been repeated. Let us embrace the obsession over the Kennedys and their lives and deaths if it means not having a fresher wound than Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.