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I recall a New Yorker cartoon that appeared years ago. Picture if you will: two or three animals are gathered in a sunlit forest. A cute rabbit looks up to a chirpy bird and asks, “Where were you when Bambi’s mother died?”
It’s a lighthearted way of dealing with memory, movies, mortality, and gently poses a question that we often ask: “Where were you when so-and-so-important died (was fatally run over by a car, was kidnapped, held for ransom, was axed by Trump )?”
I was five when my mother took me to see Walt Disney’s “Bambi”. Like hundreds of kids I cried during the forest fire animation, but was reassured that it was only make-believe. “Bambi’s mom is safe in Heaven,” my mother whispered, and I felt secure knowing that there were happy endings in my storybook kingdom.
I was 10 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia, just days before World War II ended. Mrs Weeks, our prim Burton Elementary School music teacher, made the tearful announcement, and we sang “America the Beautiful”.
“I’ll bet Hitler’s glad,” I commented that night at the dinner table. “Yes, Bobby; but not for long,” said my dad.
When Princess Di died on August 31, 1997, I was staying with a friend in Chicago. I joined the queue of mourners who signed the memorial book at the British Embassy. She was the epitome of glamour. A fairy tale princess abandoned by a philandering prince. Her dedicated — and so often courageous — AIDS volunteering and charity work set her apart as someone regally special. What will become of William and Harry? I wondered. (These days they seem to be doing OK.)
Now 54 years later I recall President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. At the time I was working at Wayne State, and returning from lunch to hear unthinkable news. Coworkers located a portable TV set, and we huddled in shock, watching stark black-and-white history unfold moment by tragic moment.
Two days later I witnessed in disbelief as Jack Ruby stepped out of a police-cordoned crowd and pistol blasted Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe it!” I shouted, shaken. Sickened by what I saw. But all alone in my off-campus apartment.
(Joyce Berman, former co-owner of my favorite coffee shop The Potato Place, is Ruby’s niece. She says her uncle’s family believes his motivation for killing Oswald was a fanatical admiration for the then 46-year-old president. Joyce was 9. Her family received death threats and police protection for some time afterward.)
A year after the assassination I sat next to a U.S. Army sergeant named Larry Stetson at Detroit’s Woodward Bar. He was on leave, stayed the night, and I gave him my address, promptly forgetting about it (and sobering up the next day). A month later I got a hasty note from him. Could he see me again?
When Larry was discharged, we saw each other often and eventually moved in together. In the course of getting to know Larry, who was quite, quite modest (unlike yours truly), I learned that he’d been in the Kennedy funeral Honor Guard. Larry died a year ago.
He’d accompanied our Beloved President’s body for Arlington burial. A gay sentinel to history. It was in the forest of yesterday. The evil edge of a long, brutally chilling winter. November 22, 1963. (Will history repeat itself?)