Recently a friend asked me when I first had my writing published. That’s easy; that first one is carved in my heart. In two days, our nation will remember President John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago, the assassination that was the subject of my first published work. He died the day before my 16th birthday.
The Sharon Herald, my Pennsylvania hometown’s daily newspaper, printed my piece Nov. 30, 1963:
“A child saluted, and the world cried. A caisson’s wheels creaked, a horse’s hoofs beat a steady tattoo on the pavement. A drum rolled, its solemn cadence repeated in the throbbing heartbreak of the multitude. The muted tone of a bugle penetrated the barrier of mankind’s prejudice and fear, and the world cried. A woman wept brokenly, a child whimpered, a man’s muffled sobbing mingled with the wailing of bagpipes. Jets roared overhead and screamed their indignation. Quiet enveloped all. A rustling flag was folded, a sputtering flame was lit, a day ended. A child saluted, and the world cried.”
I remember this for obvious reasons, but there is more to it. My father had died suddenly only two months before Kennedy’s death, and I still was reeling. Our family was shaken to the core. Nothing was the same; certainty was gone. If death could take my beloved father, only 43 years old and in the prime of his life, and if death could take a young and powerful president, then death could take everyone I loved with no warning.
Those two events, one coming upon the heels of the other, were life-changing; even now, I cannot distinguish the private from the public grief.
It was after Kennedy’s funeral that the nightmares began, a series of recurring terrors that occasionally still visit my dreams. In them, I am always a child, and the landscape is always that of my childhood home.
In the worst of them, I am alone in our house with my two little sisters, and somehow, with the prescience that exists in our dreams, I sense something coming — something dark, threatening, vague and therefore all the more frightening. I hide my sisters in our tiny bathroom, one under the sink, one in the bathtub. There is no place left for me to hide, and I turn to the sound of the front door breaking.
The dreams rarely come now. Sometimes a shadowy image floats through that leaves my skin prickling, a reminder that the terror is still out there, ready to burst through the door without warning. As a child, I thought it was death I feared; now I know it is evil that lurks.
Those of us who lived through the horror of Kennedy’s assassination, no matter our politics, remember every detail — where we were, how we felt — but there is something else we remember as well: the dark threat of chaos testing the very foundation of our nation. The sickening realization that evil is real. The sadness that comes when we replay the bloody images in our minds, knowing that forevermore, we will be changed.
Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.