By now, I guess, most of you who were alive when John F. Kennedy was killed were either at recess or in gym class or sitting at home, after a Friday at Kindergarten, watching Bozo the Clown, when you heard the news.
You were experts at ducking and covering, you all knew where the Bay of Pigs was and all your parents were scared of war because they knew what war really meant.
I’m not lucky enough to be old enough to share any of those memories, but I can tell you where I was fifty years after Kennedy was shot, if you’re interested. The only reason it’s worth mentioning is because it’s a very interesting place.
Down the Napeague stretch, off the highway to Montauk, there’s a place where people go to pick cranberries for their Thanksgiving dinners. It’s a pretty secretive place, in the Walking Dunes, a windswept, sandy place between Gardiners Bay and the highway. I’ve never been there before because there are no real directions anywhere for people to get there, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for.
As I passed the Art Barge and that big creepy metal tower by the railroad tracks, along the desolate road dotted with leaning telephone poles, the radio played a song. It was The Byrds and they were singing a version of an old, old song called “He Was a Friend of Mine,” but it wasn’t the same song that Bob Dylan and Co. were singing at Gerde’s Folk City in 1962. It was set in Dallas Town and there was a motorcade and there was a man, there was a man that a bunch of people thought they knew, when they really didn’t know him at all. And then that man’s brain was lying in the road and all those Kindergarteners home watching Bozo the Clown just decided to grow up instantaneously and begin making trouble.
‘Least that’s how that generation always seemed to me. I don’t know quite what to make of them. Mostly their music just annoys me. I mean, why does a good, old song like “He Was a Friend of Mine” have to be about their generation and about Kennedy and all about them.
I’m a Gen Xer. We are lucky. We have “Pride in the Name of Love,” which is a great song about a great man that makes you want to be a great person too. If only we had any reason left to be great for.
So down there in the walking dunes, you walk and walk. You walk past grassy knolls and you walk past ambush hills that may as well say “Texas School Book Depository” on them. You walk through a big dust bowl that, if you squint, you think might be Dealey Plaza. You walk to a place called The Phantom Forest and then you walk to the cranberry bog. And when you get to the cranberry bog, almost the whole damn thing is roped off with that string they use to protect piping plover nesting areas. The State Department of Parks and Whatnot is in there doing a habitat restoration project. And that habitat they’re restoring is nothing short of the American dream.
Down deep in the middle of that cranberry bog, I was squinting hard, and at the moment, 50 years to the moment, after Kennedy was shot, I saw a lone cranberry sitting in the middle of that habitat restoration project, looking for all the world like the first Thanksgiving. There that cranberry stood, all perky and red and out of focus and just about out of range, with rain beginning to pelt down like the drums of Native America on my big fat European head. I couldn’t very well take the very last cranberry from the Walking Dunes cranberry bog.
I walked on. There were some other boggy parts, but they were trampled by the boots of earlier settlers than me. There were no cranberries, and an awful lot of the cranberry bushes were bleached out and bright orange, just like the pine trees that got hit by salt spray during Hurricane Sandy. I fished in my pocket for a granola bar and kept walking through the pelting rain to the edge of Gardiners Bay.
The president had just been shot, and it would be at least an hour before they could drag Lyndon Johnson into a public oath-taking ceremony. I was living in a country without a president, and we only had one cranberry left.
Down by the shore, the beach had shrunk to a mere six feet across, deep, iron-red sand, with truck tracks half embedded in the frothy water of the bay. There were howls and there were moans of wind and water. There was the edge of America and then there was what was left inland.
I turned away from the bay, heading cautiously past the lone cranberry, past the school book depository, through Dealey Plaza and back up to the hills that swallow the trees. This was not the Thanksgiving place this year. It was simply the place where America was its raw true self. And that would have to be enough.