As today’s commemoration draws to a close, it is perhaps appropriate to spend a moment reflecting on the nature of time itself. For those of us of a more mature vintage, the events of fifty years ago in Dallas remain indelibly imprinted on our souls. They are integral to the age we inhabit and the meaning which our generation offers to the random succession of chronological occurrences which form our identity. There can be no divorce of Dallas from our destiny. It is the natural course of things.
But consider this. For a man or woman over fifty-five in 1963, the world of November 22, 1913 looked very different indeed. Our grandparents could remember a time when the United States was only a regional power on the cusp of emergence. Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to become President since the Civil War, was still in his first term and on his first wife. Nicholas was Tsar of all the Russias and looked invincible as he celebrated the 8th centenary of the Romanov Dynasty. Kaiser Wilhelm, the second emperor of a newly unified Germany, presumed to challenge his cousin, King George V of Britain, head of the largest empire ever known to human civilization, in an armaments race to determine which would be the world’s greatest superpower.
In 1913 the world wars had not been fought. Europe was divided among competing colonialist empires whose aristocracies interbred prodigiously while simultaneously fighting endless wars among their governments.
Radio was still largely wireless telegraphy and movies did not speak. There was no penicillin and most women died in childbirth, even in the most advanced societies. An American working man who survived his childhood could look forward to living to the ripe old age of forty-nine.
Americans over sixty-five were both the smallest and the poorest demographic in our population. Social Security was still thirty years in the future.
No intrepid aviator had yet crossed the Atlantic. The most advanced rockets were signal flares employed by artillery units. The atom was still an abstruse theoretical construct debated by academics.
That’s the world which someone over fifty-five remembered on November 22, 1963.
The world has changed mightily since that day in Dallas fifty years ago, yet we were formed largely by our reaction to it. This is perhaps the most discomfiting aspect of today’s commemoration. Time has not stopped and it is rapidly drawing to a close for those of us who remember that fateful day in 1963.
There is a certain beauty in this continuity, for in every generation there come those moments when humans tap into some truths which defy temporality. The optimism and confidence of the Camelot years was one of those moments. It was both our destiny and our privilege, as well as our blood debt, to bear witness to it.
The struggle continues, even as we pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.