Other views: JFK's death was the first of many life-altering events

I was 5 when everything changed. My mother swooped me up in her arms and hugged me as she sobbed on her bed. My mother, who could face the gravest circumstance with an impassivity that statues would envy, wept.

I was 5 when everything changed. My mother swooped me up in her arms and hugged me as she sobbed on her bed. My mother, who could face the gravest circumstance with an impassivity that statues would envy, wept.

I did not then know the date. It was Nov. 22, 1963.

I do not know what I was doing in the moments before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. My memories of being 5 are like the colorful jumble of a kaleidoscope, fascinating and disconnected. But I remember that day, and even though I did not yet have a concept of death or who this man was that had been swept away from us, I knew something had been taken from me, and I did not know what it was.

Now, 40 years later, I understand what it was. Promise. Promise and hope, and that is why my mother, then just 24 and younger than I have ever been, mourned.

"John, you can salute Daddy now," Jackie Kennedy told her son from beneath a veil of black, "and say goodbye to him," and it strikes me now that we still mourn because so many of us barely got to say hello to the promise.


I was 9 when everything changed, and Martin Luther King was shot dead on a balcony in Memphis, April 4, 1968. The vision of racial equality we believed then to be so tantalizingly close washed through our fingers like the blood of a dying man.

We were wide-eyed fourth graders then, watching a world erupt around us into riots and machine gun chatter on the five o'clock news. We knew no other world, so we did not fully comprehend the disorder. Disorder was our frame of reference. But I still remember the knot in my stomach the day I heard about Martin Luther King.

It was just this week I was driving my children to town when my son turned to me before we had left the driveway to tell me about the book report he and his mother had worked on that morning.

He told me in reverent tones that because of Martin Luther King, black children and white could share classrooms, eat in the same restaurants and sit wherever they choose on the buses. "And on his gravestone do you know what it says? 'Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!'" he said.

I told him I remembered the day the man died, and he looked at me as if I was some sort of Methusela, that anyone could possibly be old enough to remember actual history, but I remember, all right.

Just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy was gunned down near the doorway of a hotel kitchen in the City of Angels. He whispered from the floor, "Is everyone OK?" Hell, no. We were anything but OK. We were numb, and though my friends and I were in the first days of summer vacation, we spoke somberly of RFK, and I do not remember the sun shining.

What do 9- and 10-year-olds know of politics and assassinations? Nothing. But we knew they were killing our great men and even if you did not believe they were great men, you could not argue that they were killing the promise, trying to extinguish the hope. Our hope. This was our world and maybe for the first time we started becoming jaded. Everything had changed.

I was into my second Hamm's beer on Dec. 8, 1980, in a basement apartment on Railroad Avenue in Aberdeen (S.D.) when Howard Cosell told my friend, Bob, and me that John Lennon was a corpse, and everything changed again.


On March 30, 1981, I heard on the radio that Ronald Reagan had been shot and the radio told me again six weeks later, on May 13, that the pope (this man of such incredible promise) had been shot, too.

But they lived! They lived, and for the first time maybe since that day my mother wept in a small white house in Ashley, N.D., two blocks away from where I work today, I began to believe the tide had turned, that maybe there was a God and that He was on our side.

I do not believe that what has been broken inside of me over the years will ever completely heal. I've seen too much since then. We've all seen too much.

Sometimes I lose hope, but I always find it again. Or it finds me. And I keep hoping, I keep believing that everything will change.

Tony Bender is the publisher of the Ashley Tribune and the author of three books.

He may be contacted at .

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