There are times in history that imprint themselves on our psyche, events that seem to change the order of the Universe. For some it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for others 9/11. For me, it is the memory of being in a car with some Brandeis friends driving to Cambridge for a Friday outing. The radio was on, but only those in the front seat heard the news. “The President has been shot” came back to us. My immediate thought was “why would someone shoot President Sachar (our college president)?” It quickly became clear that it was a bigger moment than that: it was President Kennedy who was dead. Disbelief came over me. How could this vital man, a hero to many of us in college at the time, the one who promised a new vision for the adult lives we were just beginning… be dead?
Our day and even our lives changed at that moment. As we went through the next three days, we listened… to the drumbeat of the cortege parade to the White House, the Capitol, St. Matthews and finally to Arlington Cemetery; to the haunting strains of the Navy hymn; to the pageantry and the silences. As the days wore on, the sadness sunk in. But through it all, we shared what he meant to us, we shared our memories. A clear memory for me was the Inaugural Address that frigid, snowy day in January 1961, when this man gave us a gift, our marching orders: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Our generation was being called to make America and our world better, to be givers, not just takers. The coming years would bring many of us to engage in civil rights work, the War on Poverty, Vietnam protests, and anti nuclear demonstrations. My life began to take shape around all of these issues and still does today.
But I am still drawn back to that day in 1963. We returned to campus and our dorms; the floor pay phones were kept busy as one after another of my floormates called home to New York and further. I wondered at all these long distance calls; after all, what could a parent so many miles away do in the face of this tragedy? About 7:30 my own mother called me on that same phone, and then I knew why… when I heard her voice, I knew that the entire world had not gone crazy. She was still there, reaching out to me. Everything had not changed. There were still families caring for each other, sharing memories that connected them to what is most real and true in their lives. There were still lots of people like my mother who would keep on working for peace and justice. As I looked ahead to casting my first ballot for President in about a year, I would hear Kennedy’s challenge to my generation. I would keep asking what I can do for my country… and the world.
What events do you remember so clearly that they changed the way you work in the world? How do your memories inform your life today? Where were you when…?