My God, what a sick joke that is, I thought. A jokester in my Syracuse University dormitory passed me on Marshall Street and said “Somebody just shot Kennedy.”
You have to understand what “sick humor” was back then. It took hold in the mid-’50s and never really left. It just mutated. The first sick joke I ever heard was when I was a prepubescent watching older camp counselors fall off their chairs. The one that did it was: “Daddy, why am I running around in circles?” “Shut up or I’ll nail your other foot to the floor.” The idea was to say the most socially objectionable thing you could think of for laughs.
That, at first, had to be what Art Levin was trying to do on Marshall Street. But then I saw on a nearby street corner that a crowd had convened around a Buick convertible with the top down in very unlikely weather. They were listening to a blaring radio. I have never forgotten – nor will I – sketchy radio reports of gunmen on a nearby grassy knoll.
The ongoing reporting stunned the growing crowd into silence. “Oh my God” is what new arrivals couldn’t stop saying.
I was preparing to go home for Thanksgiving break. By the time I made it home and saw the woman I’d marry four years later, she had watched in real time – as we now quaintly call it – Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald. She was numb.
The world was no longer the world anymore. It was a massive malevolence outside of us waiting for its chance to darken our deepest parts.
Nothing was ever the same again. The seemingly safe and somnolent world of the 1950s that we grew up in had been murdered in Dealey Plaza. A world of chaos – where everything was possible and no joke could ever keep up with the world’s sickness – took over. Sometimes it waxed, sometimes it waned. At its most acute – during the horrific assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, or the soul-crushing events of Sept. 11, 2001 – it was, quite literally, unbelievable at first.
Unbelievable, maybe, but after Nov. 22, 1963, never again surprising.
Something else crucial happened on that day: We learned what television was – what it truly was.
It would bring us the efforts of highly trained people to make sense of senselessness. And when, finally, Jack Kennedy’s funeral cortege took place on Washington streets, we took in the solemn, ancient symbolism of the riderless horses and found a fire to warm us in the cold.
Modern television was born on that November weekend in 1963. The impulse that drove us to crowd around that Buick convertible on Marshall Street to listen to the world imploding later united us in front of our television screens, however alone we might have been watching. It didn’t matter. We were all together. Out of that sudden incursion of chaos, a new order took its place. What happened on the tube restored it somehow. We were somehow comforted by the screen itself. When you turned it on, it still lit up and people kept talking, no matter what had happened in Dealey Plaza or would ever happen anywhere else.
Things are different now. TV is still here to normalize and stabilize. Now people find information flickering on their telephones. The Internet may be Babel but as long as it’s there when you press the button, we can all do what E.M. Forster wisely told us we should do: “Only connect.”