Showing posts with label JFK. Show all posts
Showing posts with label JFK. Show all posts

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

Fifty years ago.  Can it be?   There are few moments of our lives that are indelibly etched in our memories.  9/11 was such a day .  But there only those of a certain age who can remember that horrid day of Nov. 22, 1963.  Two years ago I briefly wrote about my own recollection and I quote that entry as it is a suitable opening for a more detailed account:

People our age remember certain moments with such clarity they seem like yesterday. Noon, November 22, 1963 was such a moment as I was passing the Student Union building on Flatbush Avenue, hurrying to class. It was a clear, crisp day. Suddenly, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

We had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV with others, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

It was a horrific weekend of anxiety, bewilderment, and profound sorrow. Such high hopes for our young President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. These hopes were dashed by what would become the first of other assassinations in the turbulent 1960s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.

To have borne witness to them all is almost dreamlike, but Friday, November 22, 1963 is emblazoned in my mind's eye.

One would have had to live through the Kennedy era to fully appreciate the anguish of that day, and the subsequent weekend, and ultimately what that day symbolized.  My first real awareness of Jack Kennedy (other than his being a Senator and a war hero), was when he ran for President in 1960.  I was not eligible to vote as an 18 year old (21 was the age then and it was not lowered to 18 until eleven years later), but as a freshman in a predominately Democratic-leaning college, I was caught up in the Kennedy message.  He talked about the future and just did not seem to be content with politics as usual. 

My parents were staunch Republicans.  Nixon all the way.  My father was horrified by my views.  And, as I was in the process of breaking from my parent's home, his reaction only reinforced my support of Kennedy.  The other tripping mechanism was the Congregational church I used to attend (my parents sent me there for religious training and expected me to go to Sunday service, which they rarely attended).  The minister at the time warned his parishioners of the dangers of electing a Catholic, inviting the Pope into American politics.  That was the last time I was in a church other than for a wedding or a funeral or to visit one that had historic significance.  Anti-Catholicism was as big an issue in that election as racial / birthplace issues were in Obama's.

I think if the Kennedy - Nixon election had taken place before television finally established a major role in elections, Kennedy would not have had a chance.  But TV made the difference as Nixon came off looking like a perspiring used car salesman with a cool Kennedy sitting beside him, at home in front of the camera.

And so a new era of politics ensued, but that quickly went downhill as Kennedy had one test after another, first the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which merely foreshadowed the more serious confrontation over Russian missiles placed in Cuba two years later, and then taking on the steel industry over price increases they had promised not to implement.  These were headline topics and both diminished, somewhat, the Kennedy mystique. 

But nothing prepared us for what happened in October, 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis.  This made the Cold War more than a theoretical event, as Kennedy took the calculated risk that a blockade (actually a "quarantine") of Cuba would give Russia an opportunity to back down, probably the most important decision of his Presidency.  We were on the brink of nuclear war and living in a college dormitory in NYC the anxiety ran especially high.  Had such a war broken out, Washington and New York would have been first targets.  Alternatively, there was talk about an invasion of Cuba and we wondered whether we would soon be enlisting in the Army.

But through skillful behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiating, the crisis was ended and the following year was relatively placid (except for the occasional mention of Vietnam), with improving diplomatic relations with Russia, a veritable Camelot era the Kennedy mystique had so often suggested.  At the end of my Junior year, I was married (June 1963 -- to my first wife, also a Junior at college) and we moved into faculty / married student apartment facilities in the dormitory, working part time and summer jobs to pay for rent, utilities, and food. So, we were married only four months when the momentous day of Kennedy's assassination took place.

We did not own a TV, but we were friends of a Drama professor, Barbara Pasternak, who also lived in the faculty apartments with her husband, Mel.  Barbara treated us almost as colleagues as my wife was acting in the university's theatre department and I was a student in Barbara's Drama-as-literature course.

They had a TV so we spent most of that gloomy aftermath of Kennedy's assassination in her apartment, frequently with other faculty members, watching, stunned, at the turn of events, from Jack Ruby's assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald to sadly watching Kennedy's flag-draped coffin as it moved through Washington on an open carriage.  Little did we know what this horrible event would presage, such as the assassinations of Kennedy's brother Bobby, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.  Or, now from the prospective of 50 years later, add the commonplace local shootings, slaughterings in malls, movie theatres, schools, not to mention wars and terrorism.

Many years later, sometime in the late 1980's my current wife, Ann, and I were sitting on our boat in Block Island and a large yacht was approaching Payne's Dock.  The word quickly spread, that it was owned by a friend of Jacqueline Kennedy, and she was aboard (this long after her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, had died).  Naturally, everyone was hoping that she would step off the yacht and perhaps walk on the dock, but she did not.  Instead, I thought I caught a glimpse of her in the salon through thin curtains, almost like a cameo profile.  I'm sure she had wondered, as I have all these years, what could have been.  What kind of alternative history would have been written had Nov 22, 1963 been just another, forgettable, day?

Saturday, December 31, 2011

King Time

What better way of ringing in the New Year than writing about the past? In my case, there is much more of that than the future. Sounds like a downer, but it's one of those facts we all have to own up to. Nothing like a good book to get one thinking about such things.

So, it was about time that I read Stephen King's new book about time, 11/22/63.

First, a confession. I am one of the few people on the face of the earth who had never read a Stephen King anything. Maybe it is my abhorrence of the horror genre or maybe it is because my literary taste finds me eschewing most books that make the best seller list. So why turn to King, later in his career and late in my life?

It took one of our habitual long summer Florida/Connecticut commutes to change my mind. We usually pick up a few books on tape (well, now, on CD), swapping our used ones for "new" used ones at a local used-book store (yes, they still exist, thankfully). On a whim, as I am interested in the art of writing, I picked up Stephen King's On Writing. It was good, in fact spellbinding, King being able to weave memoir with mentoring -- a no nonsense guide to being a good writer (simply put, hard work). I thought it fascinating, maybe because I was a captive audience driving along I95 for hours and hours, but thinking, hey, if I had instead invested those mega hours of my publishing career into King's prescription for becoming a published writer....what if? It got me thinking about the past. But I've always lived with nostalgia on my brain (witness many entries in this blog).

A slight detour in King's usual genre finally brought me to his fiction. I liked science fiction as a kid. In high school, before my senior year when I discovered Thomas Hardy, I had thought, as a nascent reader, that the epitome of fiction was H. G. Well's Time Machine. So, after hearing King's On Writing, I thought I'd like to read something of his if only he would depart his horror / suspense thing. And as if my wishes were granted by a paranormal power, along came King's 11/22/63, more historical and science fiction than anything else.

I ordered it from Amazon so Ann could give it to me for Christmas, but it arrived on the 48th anniversary of 11/22/63, soon after I had just posted a brief piece recounting my dark memory of Kennedy's assassination.

One of King's themes is that the past is harmonic -- that there are events that seem to reflect one another, or rhyme, in one's own life when juxtaposed to others. I guess I took the arrival of the book on that very day as a providential sign, an harmonic event, it was meant to be that I should start it immediately, even though I was in the middle of another book.

I will not dwell on plot here other than to say what any reader of the legion of book reviews already knows -- that the main character goes back in time with the intention of preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy and thus (he thinks) change history for the better. And I am not going to go into detail concerning the conceit he uses to rationalize the mechanics of Jake / George travelling back and forth from the present to sometime in 1958. Let's just call it a time portal.

King's writing is all about his characters and in 11/22/63 the tale is told as a first person account by our stalwart hero, Jake Epping (as he is named in the "Land of Ahead") AKA George Amberson (in the "Land of Ago"). It is as if Jake/George pulled up a chair and tapped the reader on the shoulder and said "I have a fascinating -- no unbelievable -- story to tell you, but it's true, so listen to every word" and you, the reader, feel thoroughly compelled to do so. King's tale is a page turner, moving along with an alacrity that makes the 900 or so pages fly by.

And while much of the book is almost conversational, there are those moments when King shows his mastery of suspense and horror, such as when George first returns to the past and decides, as an experiment which will ultimately lead to his main purpose of changing history, to prevent a murder that he knows is going to happen in the late 1950's. For me the most engaging invention of the novel was the invitation to live in the past once again. The scenes King paints are familiar ones, a land without cell phones, computers, color TVs (or any TVs at all in my case, remembering our first TV, a Dumont the size of Asia with a tiny screen, that arrived sometime in the late 40s in our household), seat belts, and when lyrics like "wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom" and "itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini" wafted the radio airwaves. Or to put it another way, gas that was 20 cents a gallon, and a pack of cigarettes costing about the same.

When George first goes to 1958, he has to board a bus: ."I let the working Joes go ahead of me, so I could watch how much money they put in the pole-mounted coin receptacle next to the driver's seat. I felt like an alien in a science fiction move, one who's trying to masquerade as an earthling. It was stupid -- I wanted to ride the city bus, not blow up the White House with a death-ray -- but that didn't change the feeling."
While King's supernatural / horror themes may be more latent in this book, they are nonetheless subliminally there, reminding us that we're all in this ship of time together and none will get out alive. There is a foreboding feeling to 11/22/63, all those moments of the past, all the choices that lead to the present, with the future becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of all of our lives.

King deals with several elements of what he thinks time travel might have involved, all interesting and plausible. Among these is his theory that time's "resistance to change is proportional to how much the future might be altered by any given act," something he mentions earlier in the novel and sort of foreshadows what eliminating Oswald might mean.

He also deals with the "butterfly effect." As his fellow time traveler, Al, puts it, "It means small events can have large, whatchamdingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later -- or four hundred -- there's an earthquake in Peru." (More foreshadowing.)

And the butterfly effect is the reason why, as George stalks Oswald, he decides to do nothing to even cross his path before it is time to act (that is, if he does act -- no spoiler here): "If there's a stupider metaphor than a chain of events in the English language, I don't know what it is. Chains...are strong. We use them to pull engine blocks out of trucks and to bind the arms and legs of dangerous prisoners. That was no longer reality as I understood it. Events are flimsy, I tell you, they are houses of cards, and by approaching Oswald -- let alone trying to warn him off a crime which he had not even conceived -- I would be giving away my only advantage. The butterfly would spread its wings, and Oswald's course would change. Little changes at first, maybe, but as the Bruce Springsteen song tells us, from small things, baby, big things one day come. They might be good changes, ones that would save the man who was now the junior senator from Massachusetts. But I didn't believe that. Because the past is obdurate."

At his most eloquent, King philosophizes about the "harmonics" of time watching as Jake/George - teachers both past and present - observe two students, Mike and Bobbi, dance the Lindy as had George and Sadie (the gal he falls in love with in the past): "The night's harmonic came during the encore...It's all of a piece, I thought. It's an echo so close to perfect you can't tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don't we all secretly know this? It's a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark."

It is also a well researched historical novel, with King mostly playing down the conspiracy theories while nonetheless providing for the remote possibility. He makes his historical characters real -- this is a Lee Harvey Oswald you get to know as a flesh and blood person (not someone most would want to know, but a real person). One especially feels sympathy for his wife, Marina, an abused woman in a strange land. In fact George draws a parallel (harmonics again) to his love, Sadie, thinking about taking Sadie to the future with him: "I could see her lost in 2011, eyeing every low-riding pair of pants and computer screen with awe and unease. I would never beat her or shout at her -- no not Sadie -- but she might still become my Marina Prusakova, living in a strange place and exiled from her homeland forever."

And it was satisfying to hold the book itself, an impressive tome with a fabulous jacket, one side depicting the past as we know it and the other the past that might have been. In On Writing, King insists that writers must be readers. 11/22/63 is a book to be read.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

People our age remember certain moments with such clarity they seem like yesterday. Noon, November 22, 1963 was such a moment as I was passing the Student Union building on Flatbush Avenue, hurrying to class. It was a clear, crisp day. Suddenly, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

We had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV with others in the dormitory, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

It was a horrific weekend of anxiety, bewilderment, and profound sorrow. Such high hopes for our young President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. These hopes were dashed by what would become the first of other assassinations in the turbulent 1960s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.

To have borne witness to them all is almost dreamlike, but Friday, November 22, 1963 is emblazoned in my mind's eye.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Perfect Storm

It is Memorial Day weekend, one of profound sadness, for the service men and women who gave their lives for our country, and now what seems like a deathwatch for the fragile ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest failure on the part of BP to stop the oil leak in the Gulf via a “top kill,” one that was said to have a 60-70% probability of succeeding, now seems like just another attempt to string along an anxious nation until the “permanent fix” of drilling an intercept relief well is supposed to be concluded in August.

Now there is a new stop gap “plan,” which involves cutting off the damaged riser and capping it with a containment valve. Per BP: "We're confident the job will work but obviously we can't guarantee success," pretty much what was said of the top kill method. So we can all hope that this is not just more media hype and cutting the damaged riser does not just release more oil. One cynically gets the sense, watching all of these improvised attempts, that we’ve seen this movie before, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (the Government and BP) saying “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”

Here’s the “perfect storm” scenario: NOAA’s forecast that the impending hurricane season being nearly as active as the one in 2005 and the possible impact on the rescue and cleanup activity by the armada of ships and platforms and miles and miles of containment booms in the Gulf.

It is speculation as to how a Katrina might further spread oil inland or even suck up and deposit surface oil in its torrential rain-making machine, but one thing is clear: clean up efforts and relief well drilling would be profoundly effected. The combination of the spill and an active hurricane season is an environmental catastrophe of even more untold proportions. And it bears noting that early season named storms are more likely to form nearby, particularly in the Gulf and the Caribbean.

The only potential “good” to come from this might be our country’s willingness to make the sacrifices we made in fighting wars, pulling together as a nation and declaring energy independence via alternative energy. I am not some Pollyanna thinking that we can suddenly drive our energy needs via alternative means. We need better technology, an improved infrastructure, and be willing to pay a steep tax on fossil fuels to support such efforts.

But that is what it is all about: the national willpower to achieve this objective and to save our environment as well. President Kennedy declared that we would put a man on the moon in ten years at the beginning of the 1960’s; we can do the same for alternative energy today. Since we seemed doomed to forever plan using a rear view mirror, this might be the only good that can come from this disaster.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Inspirational Diplomacy

I am an early riser so was able to see President Obama’s entire speech today as he delivered it at Cairo University. If a main criterion of being a successful President is to be inspirational, Obama passed that test.

It was not a speech of diplomacy per se but its prelude, setting a tone and putting forth ideals. I fear progress on the broad objectives President Obama set out in the speech will be delayed, another victim of our economic malaise. This dilutes the energy that can be focused on international goals and until domestic issues such as the deficit and unemployment are under control, the ability to make significant progress abroad will be impaired.

Nonetheless, the speech is one that realizes the hope I expressed more than a year ago in an open letter to then Senator Obama: “Some people have pointed to 9/11 as a manifestation of the clash between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Given your personal background, you have what may be a unique opportunity to establish a dialogue between these two worlds and in so doing begin to restore our international standing. Just electing you will demonstrate to the world that we can put our ideals into action.”

President Obama’s made several references to the need for honesty, putting forth some very sensitive key issues to his Egyptian audience, such as the future security of Israel and the need for Palestinian statehood, and Iran’s place in a nuclear world.

And if I am to be honest, during my lifetime the American Presidency sometimes has been a source of embarrassment, culminating in President George W. Bush having to duck shoes thrown at him. When I traveled the world I would occasionally feel the undercurrent of anti-Americanism, the stereotype of the “ugly American” that President Obama has asked the Muslim world to renounce as he has said we must “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

During my adult lifetime I can think of only two comparable speeches as noteworthy as Obama’s: President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” June 26, 1963 speech (ironically three days before my first marriage) in West Berlin and President Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, proclaiming “Tear down this wall!” a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall. I was in Frankfurt Germany on October 3, 1990 when Berlin was united into a single city-state and East/West German unity was achieved, the words of Kennedy and Reagan resonating in history.

Hopefully President Obama’s Cairo speech similarly will be recognized as an inspirational turning point sometime in the future. Words and leadership make a difference.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

That Infamous Day

9/11. It has been seven years but it seems like yesterday. We all remember where we were at that moment. The only comparable moment in my life is where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated.

On Sept. 11, 2001 we were on our boat in Norwalk, Ct., a clear somewhat breezy day with a deep blue sky. We had the TV on and, in complete disbelief, the tragedy unfolded before us all.

Although some fifty miles away, we could see the smoke drifting south from the Twin Towers. To this day I still feel that sense of incredulity. Did this really happen here? My son, Jonathan, had been interviewed only a couple of weeks before by Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 102nd floor of One WTC. They lost 685 employees on that fateful day. Jonathan had taken another job. Is it merely coincidence and accident that governs life’s outcomes? Or Shakespeare’s more cynical line from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

My older son is the poet of our family and this is what he wrote on that very day. One line in particular resonates: “If Hell opened up, and swallowed my life, it could not compete with what witnessed, I.” May we never forget:

By Chris Hagelstein

Terrorist troops and bodies strewn
in Twin Tower screams, destruction loomed.
News stations on a journalistic mission
under our Flag's lost transmission:
America's Death.

Judgement of Religious Decree
driving Boeing bombs with air fuel
circulating vultures from above the sea,
smashing their prey
on this plain sun-filled day.

Television digital debris rained on video,
Looping the same sequence of carnage.
The surgery of media controlled the flow
but the State of Blood remained unknown.

Prayers beneath each citizen’s eyes
were blessed wells now, for those who died.
No ceremony or speech could render a conclusion:
Those wired images played seemed like an illusion.

An Eye of some god was seeing us All
for each one's Blindness, was another’s Call,
and in the skies above Manhattan, masked in smoke
exhumed old gods of hatred and hope.

If Hell opened up, and swallowed my life,
It could not compete with what witnessed, I:
Buildings falling and heroes crushed:
As day burned to night
and life --- to dust.

Still, yet, in my hearts dismay,
Born here, I stand, no less bleeding
than those who survived this day:
For America is my body and my sea
executed on the stage of history.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Politics as Usual – Where is a Leader?

It is that time of the year – political demagoguery to seek the presidential nomination. No wonder it is easy to become inured to politics. Not one candidate exhibits the qualities of leadership but, instead, each is busy tearing down the other, trying to appease every voter. Politics as usual. Leadership as usual.

Whatever you might think of John F. Kennedy, he knew how to articulate an objective and rally the nation behind his viewpoint, albeit he was also a crafty politician – perhaps one of the best in my lifetime.

The Cold War was at its peak when he took office and behind the guise of exploring space and shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, Kennedy threw down the gauntlet on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” It was a masterful stroke to rekindle American pride in the post Sputnik era and to establish a battleground in the Cold War (unfortunately, the other one being Viet Nam which was gradually being funded at the same time).

I remember how preposterous and unbelievable this objective seemed at the time, surely an impossible one to achieve. It was something more likely to come out of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne rather than the President of the United States. But I also remember sitting in an apartment on the upper west side of NYC with my future wife (Ann) on July 20, 1969 watching Neil Armstrong taking that “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

How does this relate to today’s Presidential race? Where is the candidate who says, “If you elect me I will dedicate our country to achieving energy independence within a decade.” And this must be the central message of our future leader as all other issues, and in particular the economy and the environment, stem from our addiction to oil.

I remember the GE science fairs that were given at NYC high schools in the 1950’s. The prototype of a solar power car was shown on stage and, then, when a spotlight was focused on its solar cells, the car slowly moved across the stage. It was proclaimed that this would be the car of the future in twenty-five years! The rudimentary technology existed even then, but as gas was 23 cents a gallon and we were able to produce the majority of our energy needs domestically, we did not need the backbone to commit our nation’s resources to alternative energy. And at that time we were unaware of the long-term effect of fossil fuels on our environment.

While the goal of putting a man on the moon with the decade sounded impossible in 1961, energy independence indeed will be impossible without committing to it as a national goal. Failing to achieve that will leave our nation hostage to foreign interests. We think we are fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq. That war is stealthy brewing closer to home as our dollar declines, foreign interests are buying up assets, and we continue to mortgage our future by borrowing.

Not only do we have to create better incentives for conservation, but we have to use, further perfect, and expand our proven nuclear, solar, fuel cell, hydrogen, and wind technologies not to mention the newer tidal and wave technologies. Honda has already produced a hydrogen car that gets 68 miles to the gallon, the only “waste” product being water Is anyone in Detroit or Washington listening?

If one of the presidential candidates ran solely on the platform of energy independence by 2017, he/she has my vote.