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TALKING TO MYSELF: 22 November 2013 Where I was fifty years ago today --
When The President of the United States is murdered, the weather should thunder like the background music in old movies. Lightning bolts should crack the sky into pieces, and earthquakes should rattle the ground beneath our feet. But on the late November day when John F. Kennedy was shot, the weather was mild and good-natured. In Lexington, where I was enrolled as a college freshman, the temperature was a tropical 73 degrees.
I think I may have had a mutant form of spring fever, an autumn strain that infects the brain via brilliant red leaves and gentle, golden light. Why else would I have gone to a dance only hours after my idol, JFK, was gunned down? Sometimes I imagine that I danced on Kennedy’s grave, but that can’t be true. The Prince of Camelot was not yet lowered into the fields of Arlington that Friday night when I whirled off to the Harvest Ball.
The Harvest Ball. Even the name sounds innocent. I think it was the only campus-wide formal held that semester, at least it was the only one I was invited to, so there is no difference. I had a dress that I’d worn to my senior high school prom, but I needed new white gloves to complete my outfit. So after lunch, I walked downtown to purchase them. I wanted to get nylon stockings, too.
In those pre-mall, pre-sprawl days, downtown was the hub of every town’s commercial district, and in Kentucky it was no different. With well-dressed, important looking people bustling in all directions, Lexington’s Main Street was a smaller version of New York’s Fifth Avenue. Elegant, perfumed shops, two citified hotels with sidewalk canopies and doormen, three large movie theaters, and at least five multi-floored department stores stretched east to west along six blocks or more. I felt a little giddy with collegiate self-importance as I made my way through the coatless crowds on that warm November afternoon.
Suddenly, I became aware of a radio blaring out over the sidewalk, its sound amplified through a loudspeaker. This was unusual, but still it took me several minutes to realize something was wrong. I noticed first one group and then another stopped and silent on the street – listening.
To my credit, I ran straight back to campus when I heard the news. I can’t remember whether I bought the gloves or not. And to my escort’s credit, he was waiting in the lobby of my dorm to offer the option of canceling our date that evening.
Well, I didn’t know, I said. He’d already bought a corsage, and to a frugal farm girl like me that seemed like a big issue. Let me see how I felt in a few hours, I said.
As I turned to walk toward the stairs that would take me to my fourth floor room, an explosion of voices stopped me in my tracks. To my astonishment, two of the most important students at our school were having an intense and very public argument in the middle of the small lobby. Both were seniors and both were brilliant from what I knew about them. The guy, I think, was president of student government, which was sponsoring the Harvest Ball. The woman was vice president or maybe chairman of the dance committee. But in the chaos of that afternoon, the demands of leadership were weighing heavily on both of them.
The man looked first at the ceiling and then at the floor as though he thought he, himself, might die at any moment. He kept saying over and over that “the right thing to do” was to cancel the ball. And the woman, emphasizing her words with wide hand gestures, spoke in a voice that escalated louder and louder, until finally she was shouting, nearly screaming. She was adamant that the dance should go on.
The sensitive, “right thing to do” fellow went on to become the president of a company, I hear, but I haven’t seen him in over forty years. The strident young woman grew into a compassionate religious leader quoted regularly in the media on matters of world peace. I admire her wisdom, though I haven’t seen her since the 1960s either. And so I’m left to wonder. Did he ever regret that he did not stand firm? Did she ever wish she had been less confident? And do either of them remember me, a lowly freshman, standing there listening in confusion?
The dance was not canceled, but the party was over. Within the next ten years, my generation would see one assassination after another. We waded through the quagmire of the Vietnam War. We either participated in or witnessed wide-scale riots in the streets. Some of us burned buildings. Some of us watched and wept.
And I’m pretty sure that I never wore white gloves again after 1963. The thing about dividing lines in history, though, is that you don’t know at the time when your foot is sliding over one.
©COPYRIGHT GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER
"Dividing Line" from New Growth, ed. Charlie Sweet & Hal Blythe; republished in my first collection of essays, You Can Go Anywhere