Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Watching some of the newscasts being replayed yesterday, one theme that was often repeated was that the event was so important and shocking that we would never forget it as long as we lived. Really? Another related theme was that you would always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard of the killing of the President.
Well, first thing: I wasn’t a huge Kennedy fan. I had been in favor of Estes Kefauver when Adlai Stevenson challenged the 1956 Democratic Convention to select his running mate. If you remember, there was a hotly contested multi-ballot struggle between Kefauver and the young Senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy. Kefauver won and I was distrustful of Kennedy from that point on.
Having grown up in California and been aware of the sleazy crook that Dick Nixon had been since his entry into politics, I could never have supported Nixon even if he ran against Kennedy. I was a Lyndon Baines Johnson supporter until Kennedy got the nomination and then I supported the Democratic ticket in the general election. But let’s be honest: I would have supported Lyndon LaRouche against Richard Nixon if that was the choice. In fact, when LaRouche came on the scene in the ’70s, it was even more obvious that Nixon was a scalawag from way-back.
Even with my rather tepid support of Kennedy, do I remember where I was and what I was doing when the news from Dallas was announced? Yes, I do (with reservations I will soon reveal, see also). I was in 4th period Physical Education on the sidelines of the volley ball courts (I was physically disabled at the time) and a runner came from the school office with the news on a slip of paper. I read it to the PE class which gathered around and then the coach sent us to the showers. Actually, there was more than one news flash distributed and in the first Texas Governor Connelly was killed and the President merely shot; in the second, the President was dead. Sometime later we learned that the Governor had actually survived.
So, in light of my earlier comments on memory, do I actually remember the volleyball, the hurried runner, the reading of the notes, the reaction of the class? Nope.
The phenomenon of remembering an event like the assassination of the President did not cause my brain to shift into a long-term memory mode so that I would remember the event for the rest of my life. Rather, the event was sufficiently memorable that I tended to have it pop into my consciousness fairly regularly and, therefore, renew itself for later recollection. Besides, if we use the Five-Year guideline, there is inevitably some article, some television special, some movie event, or some erudite conference somewhere at sometime during the five years it takes for a memory to slip away from my brain. I hear of the event or watch the movie and I’m renewing my memories by recalling them yet again.
Memory isn’t improved for momentous events, but momentous events do make us pay more attention and I suppose we stack up more synaptic connections providing for more memories. Then, as those memories fade, there’s still enough hanging around to make later recollections a bit more vivid. Many people can tell you a great deal about what the were doing when Kennedy was shot … some of it will even be true. But like every memory, the tapestry of the event is crumbling and full of holes; it is natural for our brains to fill in those holes with fictions we are not even aware of.
By the way, did I tell you what a stud I was in High School?
All of the coverage and re-coverage of the Kennedy assassination on this anniversary brought out one very frightening fact that didn’t used to bother me but now does. Like last night, I was watching a panel discussion and the moderator asked the panel a similar memory question concerning the assassination. One of the panel members wasn’t even born at the time and the oldest of the remaining panel members had been five years old. In other discussions, it was like the old joke about the rumor that Paul had been in another rock band before Wings. I guess I am growing old and full of sleep … sigh.