'I’ll never forget the moment when I heard the news.
It was November of 1963; I was a five-year-old boy two months into my educational sojourn at Miss Sylvia’s kindergarten.
I was a little boy sitting in the floor of our little den in our little house in front of our little black and white television when our telephone rang. My mother went to the built-in phone cranny in the hall; I heard her say “Hello” and “I’ll be right there.” The next thing I knew she was snatching me up and throwing a jacket over my Dr. Dentons and saying “We have to go see about your Daddy.”
She put me in the car and quickly drove up Memorial Drive to Gordon Road, turned left and then hung a right into the parking lot of the Lamar County Health Department building, which was the closest thing we had to a hospital. The trip couldn’t have taken more than two minutes.
There were lots of cars in the parking lot.
That was because a lot of men had come there to be with my father. They had all been at the Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road four miles outside of Barnesville that night, working together to build the church’s first ever indoor baptismal pool. My father had been in the attic, trimming the opening in the ceiling where the light would go, when he lost his balance and fell to the concrete floor below, landing on his head.
When Mama and I walked into the room, all of those men were lined up around the walls while Dr. Crawford leaned over the figure lying on the gurney, using a needle and thread to repair what damage he could. I heard someone tell Mama, “They’re going to move him to the Griffin hospital as soon as Dr. Crawford gets him sewn up.” She released my hand and walked over to the gurney; she leaned over for a few seconds, then straightened up, walked back to me and said, “Go kiss your Daddy goodbye, Son.”
“For how long?” I wondered. “Is he ever coming back?” I wondered.
But I didn’t ask. I just walked over and kissed him on the lips, partly because that was what we always did and partly because it was the only clean place on his face. He smiled at me. I have a vague recollection of the blood and the stitches but I remember that smile so clearly. He told me that he loved me and I told him that I loved him and the next thing I knew I was at Uncle Sandy and Aunt Dot’s house, totally confused and, even though I was with my cousins Denise and Rhonda, very much alone.
I stayed with them while Daddy was in the hospital being treated for two fractured neck vertebrae since Mama spent most of her time with him; I imagine it was just a few days but it felt like months. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, not knowing where I was—in both the immediate and existential sense.
It was the time in my life that I realized how vulnerable I am—how vulnerable we all are—and just how quickly things can change and change forever. Everything had been fine up until then; I had been full of nothing but innocence and hope and potential but suddenly I found myself filling up with fear and doubt and limitation.
It was my forbidden fruit moment but I had not partaken voluntarily; it had been shoved down my throat.
While I am not positive about the sequence, I think that Daddy was still in the hospital on November 22. I was at my friend Dee’s house when their housekeeper Martha told us, “They’ve shot the President!” I can still hear the agitation and anxiety in her voice.
Perhaps the nation’s experience when President Kennedy was shot was somewhat akin to the one I had when my father smashed into that concrete floor. The young charismatic President had instilled hope in the up and coming Baby Boomer generation with his “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” challenges. The new generation was excited about exploring the “new frontier”; there was no telling what we might do.
And we did a lot of it. We have done a lot of it. We are still doing a lot of it.
But we have done it with the burden of frailty and angst that you bear after the reality of a dangerous and cruel world comes crashing down on you. It’s a lesson that every generation and every person has to learn.
Having my father take a header into a concrete floor when I was five years old is what dumped that reality on me.
Having our President struck down by an assassin’s bullets (and to have his brother Bobby and Dr. King suffer the same fate five years later) is what dumped that reality on my generation. Following President Kennedy’s death, the columnist Mary McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later United States Senator from New York) that we would never laugh again. Moynihan replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”
November of 1963 was a mighty early date for me and my generation to wake up and know that we’d never be young again. It’s been tough to live with the knowledge of how quickly it can all change for the worse while at the same time trying to give our lives over to the effort to change things for the better.
But you know, you can’t stay young and innocent and live in the real world and do what has to be done. It’s best to live with our eyes, our hearts, our hands, and our lives wide open. It’s best to give ourselves away in service, believing that it will do some good no matter what it costs us.
President Kennedy was a young man when he died serving our nation.
My father was a young man when he almost died serving our church.
President Kennedy said, “Let us begin.” After his death, President Johnson said, “Let us continue.”
I say, “Let us look this hard world and dangerous life squarely in the eye and say, ‘We are not children living sheltered and unknowing lives; we are grown men and women who know the score. We will do the best we can to make things better. You will try to stop us. So be it. Come at us with all you have. We will never stop trying …'”