Friday, April 19, 2013

Raging Innocence

There is no better day for a sixth grader than Friday. Just after lunch, all thought of learning disappears and is replaced with the rambunctious anxiety of the weekend ahead and the adventures it held for us. In my beloved Fairview, NJ, that meant stickball, baseball card flipping, practicing with my band, The Untamed, and hanging out on the street with friends on the steps of St. John the Baptist School, which was just across Walker Street from my apartment. At eleven years old, much of the world’s ugliness has not chipped away at the soul and the universe can be measured in several square city blocks.

And so, on this particular November Friday in 1963, we expected nothing different until Sister Marie Rene paid an unusual visit to our class. She seemed in a hurry as she glided across the floor in that angelic way that only nun can. It’s as if their feet never touch the floor. They are little black and white Hovercraft who do the Lord’s work.

Sister Rene’s eyes seemed soft, weary and moist as she whispered something into the ear of our teacher, Sister Jane Aloysius. Whatever the message was, it was brief in nature for she left the classroom as suddenly as she entered. It wasn’t until Sister Jane’s countenance had changed dramatically and tears had welled up in her eyes that we knew something wasn’t right.

“Class,” she began tentatively, “I’ve just been told that President Kennedy has been shot. We don’t know how bad he is, but in a couple of minutes, the radio is going to be broadcasting over the P.A. system.”

The clock on the wall, which prior to Sister Jane’s announcement had ticked happily toward 3 pm and freedom now thudded ominously with endless space between clicks as we awaited the news. Finally the speaker next to the clock crackled to life and the voice coming from it was unmistakable even to our class who cared nothing for the news of the world. It was Walter Cronkite.

“Dallas...President Kennedy.... assassination attempt...two or three shots.... Parkland Memorial Hospital... Last Rites dead”

It was all a blur at that point, all happening so fast until shortly after 1 pm when the announcement came from Walter Cronkite via Dan Rather in Dallas that our President was dead; thus marked the end of my age of childhood innocence.

That weekend, instead of running and playing, I sat gripped in fear and sorrow over what had taken place in the country. I watched as President Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One with Lady Bird beside him and Jackie Kennedy, still in shock and still covered in her blood-stained outfit, stood by the coffin as it was unloaded from the plane. I watched in shock as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby in front of the entire country just two days later.

I wondered how it could happen here. Here I was, still feeling the effects of my parents’ divorce, feeling alone and strange, and now the roots of my country, the one place where I was supposed to be safe had been pulled out of the ground and rode in that funeral cortege to that place in Arlington, Virginia where the President was to be buried. There was Caroline and John-John saluting when just weeks earlier he had been playing under his Dad’s desk in the Oval Office and Life Magazine had shown us all how happy they were.  How could this be? What was happening to America?

In the years to come, I would be witness to so many more moments like that one, though November 22 will always stand out in my memory as if it happened yesterday. The murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy only a few years later would trigger the memory of Dallas once more. Riots and bloodshed just twenty minutes from my home in Newark, NJ, bombings of churches in which innocent little girls were killed, students shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University, riots at the Chicago Convention and in Watts, my country nearly torn apart by a war in Viet Nam,  would all follow. Columbine, 9/11, Aurora, Tucson, Newtown, and now Boston were still to come. Each time a new group of eleven year olds would hear the news maybe from a parent or teacher. And each time, a new generation would lose their insulation of innocence to wonder the same things about their country. Horrific events have sadly become a rite of passage for America’s youth it seems and a way of life for us older folk. And yet each time one occurs we ask, how could this happen in America? Things like this are supposed to happen in far away places full of strange looking and fanatical people, but not here.

The truth of the matter is that our country’s history is rife with similar tragedies of lesser and greater proportion. We’d like to believe that the seemingly recent spike in horrific events is a relatively new phenomenon, but the reality is that you would be hard pressed to find a decade where one or more of these things didn’t occur. In fact the real surprise would be if we could get through an entire decade without one.

But we are an idealistic people, a nation of eternal optimists who believe in the better nature of mankind.. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the original Transcendentalist would be proud of us I think because over and over again, in the face of profound sorrow and pain, we choose instead to imagine a reality where love abounds and triumphs over dastardly acts such as this most recent one in Boston. Instead of spiraling down into anarchy, distrust of one another and hatred for those who do us harm, we reinforce our vision of a world where peace and love abound and seem genuinely perplexed when someone perpetrates a heinous act which contradicts that vision.

This view of ourselves seems naïve and Pollyanna-like around the world perhaps, but it is our greatest treasure as Americans. We choose to believe that the founding principles of our country are genuine and that we are a collective family. And because of that belief, the vast majority of us hold fast in our commitment to make America a better place during our time here by elevating those principles.

These events will not stop in our lifetime or in the lifetimes of the many generations to come. Someone will always come along who feels disenfranchised enough, or angry enough, or will be mentally ill enough to remind us of the black thread of evil that runs throughout the land and which occasionally becomes frayed enough to rip the fabric of our souls. But age and hindsight will eventually reveal to everyone that although horror shows itself from time to time, the goodness of our people will triumph. We will see that in general, we live remarkably peacefully and that the ideal of America is in the hearts of its people and not its government. And we will pass from this planet choosing to focus on the positivity that abounds in our hearts and the collective heart of our people.

Mourn the dead and wounded once more. Hold the hand of a stranger in these times and share the love of friendship and comradeship for this moment of sorrow. But resolve to walk away from the belief that fear and despair will triumph here because it will not. Not now. Not ever.

I would like to sign off with the words of Emerson, who was a pretty insightful guy. Peace and love to you all. .    

“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson             



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