I recall a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker magazine a goodly while ago. It appeals to old timers. Like myself.
Two or three Walt Disney animals are gathered deep in a sunlit forest. A cuddly rabbit looks up at a wise, chirpy owl on a tree branch, and asks, “Where were you when Bambi’s mother died?” Where, indeed.
It’s a lighthearted way of dealing with mortality and memory, gently posing a question we often ponder: “Where were you when so-and-so-important died (was fatally run over by a car, was kidnapped, or outed for being gay)?”
Or, for those of us who are older LGBTs, “Where were you when San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated by Dan White? (If you’re too young to know who Harvey Milk was, it’s time to read, and hopefully to learn from, your gay – ever possibly repeatable – history.)
I was five when my mother took me to see Disney’s 1941 “Bambi.” Like hundreds of kids I cried during the fatal forest fire, but was reassured it was make-believe. “Bambi’s mom’s safe in Heaven,” my mom cuddled me, and I felt secure knowing that there could be happy endings after all in my storybook kingdom.
I was 9 when President Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia, just days before World War II ended. Mrs. Weeks, our music teacher, made the sad announcement. We sang patriotic songs.
“I’ll bet Nazi Hitler’s glad,” I ventured at the dinner table. “Yes, Boy; but not for long,” said my dad. Soon the war that killed 50 million people ended. We celebrated with 100,000 others in Downtown Detroit.
And now, 48 years after a fateful 1963 November day, I still vividly recall President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was working at Wayne State, returning from lunch to hear unthinkable news. Coworkers located a TV set, and we huddled in stunned silence, watching stark, black-and-white history unfold moment by tragic moment.
Two days later I watched as Jack Ruby stepped boldly into a lax, police-cordoned garage, hand gun blasting Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach. “Oh, God! I can’t believe it!” I shouted, shaken, sickened by what I saw, alone in my off-campus apartment.
(Joyce Berman, the gay friendly co-owner of the deli where I have morning coffee, is Ruby’s niece. She says her relatives maintain he killed Oswald in cold blood because he had a fanatical admiration for the charismatic Kennedy. Conspiracy theorists would disagree.)
A year after the JFK assassination I sat next to Larry, a U.S. Army sergeant, at Detroit’s Woodward Bar. He was on leave. I gave him my address, promptly forgetting about it (sobering up the next morning). A month later I received a letter.
When Larry was discharged, we saw each daily, eventually living together for seven years. I learned he had been in Kennedy’s funeral as a member of the Honor Guard. He’d accompanied our beloved President’s body for burial at Arlington. A gay sentinel to history.
When Princess Di died in August, 1997 I was staying with Chicago friends. There was a tentative TV interruption, followed minutes later by a cautious note of hope. Finally came the official word: the tunnel crash was fatal. Another sad, numbing weekend for everyone.
I joined the queue of mourners who signed a memorial book at the British Embassy. Princess Di was the epitome of glamour, a fairy tale princess abandoned by Charles, a philandering prince. Her AIDS charity work set her apart as regally special. What will become of boys William and Harry, I wondered? (What indeed?)
It seems like yesterday. Been there. Saw that. Survived. Awaiting the Blue Bird of Happiness. In a forest still dimly lighted.