- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2001

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.


Nov. 22. In the middle of the car wreck or the plunge down the mountainside or in the mind of the drowning, time slows, then stops the way it does for some Americans every year when the page of the calendar is torn away and today's date revealed: Nov. 22.
It is always 12:29 Dallas time when the motorcade comes into sight. Nothing ever changes in the immutable past, no matter how much we want it to. Emily Dickinson's certain slant of light is captured forever in the Zapruder film we can't stop watching:
Click. The presidential limousine coming down Houston makes a sharp left onto Elm.
Click. The president is smiling, waving.
Click. Mrs. Kennedy looks at him with concern.
Click. A bystander jerks his head suddenly toward Dealey Plaza.
Click. The limousine is lost behind a street sign.
Click. The president reaches for his throat, slumps toward his wife.
Click. The governor of Texas, seated in front of the president, falls forward.
Click. The shattering impact.
Click. Mrs. Kennedy rises.
Click. She is pushed back into the car by a Secret Service agent.
Click. The limousine disappears from view beneath an underpass, heading for Parkland Hospital and history.
The film runs 15 seconds. And an eternity.
None of us will forget where we were when we heard. I was riding a subway to a job interview in Manhattan. A dirty, disheveled man came down the aisle nothing unusual in a New York subway but he leaned over, whispered something in my ear, and moved on to whisper it to the next passenger, and the next, and the next. It took a while to make meaning of the slurred words, and then absorb them:
"They shot Kennedy in Dallas. They shot Kennedy in Dallas. They shot Kennedy in Dallas."
I could see him enter the next car and do the same. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy telling the tale.
At last he knew something no one else did, at least for the moment, and he had seized the moment. He would finally live in someone else's mind. He would finally be important, memorable, somebody.
I walked up out of the subway station in Lower Manhattan to see a man about a job, and everything seemed dirtier than usual, the din even more depressing as I walked the couple of blocks to the gray office building.
The old editor I was meeting seemed defeated. We didn't talk about the job. Instead, we looked out the office window and watched Manhattan's flags being lowered to half-staff across the skyline, now one, now another, as the word spread and the afternoon light turned yellow in New York's canyons.
He talked about how it had felt the day Franklin Roosevelt died.
Certain days stay in the mind.
Years later, I would be buying a pen knife and a red floor mat in a hardware store in Little Rock when a news bulletin interrupted the football game on television. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot in Tel Aviv and was being rushed to a hospital. I knew even then what had happened. The name Parkland came to mind unbidden. Certain days stay in the mind. Like a film that is unwound and replayed again and again. As much as you'd like to stop it. Each time. But you can't.
Years later, the phone would ring and I would turn the television on to see the jetliners strike the buildings again and again. In an endless loop. As much as you'd like to stop it, to turn it off, you can't.
To watch the Zapruder film is like that. It is to see the destruction of the temple again and again. Nothing ever changes except those who watch. America would never be quite so young again, at least to one generation. After that, nothing was the same. Events seemed to spin out of control:
Click. The anguish of Vietnam.
Click. A president announces he will not risk running for re-election.
Click. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at Memphis.
Click. The late president's brother Robert, after his victory speech, in a pool of blood in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.
Click. Another president, disgraced, resigns before he can be impeached. And the name of a Washington apartment complex, Watergate, comes to mean much more.
Looking back, it all seemed to start coming apart at 12:29, Dallas time, Nov. 22, 1963, and it would take years, it would take decades, to overcome.
One generation of Americans would never be quite so sure of anything again.
Never again, one thought at the time, would Americans take their country so lightly, their institutions so for granted.
But time passes and fortune smiles, and the most blessed of nations found it easy to forget, and to fall into complacency. Hubris is the child of forgetfulness, and has there ever been so forgetful a nation as this one?
Then some new crisis erupts, and people are reminded again of how fragile society is, and how beautiful the republic is, any republic. We are jerked awake, and realize our way of life is not a machine that runs by itself after all, but one that requires daily heroism. And we look differently at the uniforms that guard us while we sleep.
Sometimes, as on every Nov. 22, even in the good years, it doesn't take a crisis to remind the nation of the fragility of life and power, but just a date on the calendar and a certain slant of light.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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