What’s Going On?

Fall, 1963

In any mid-November I can suddenly be 12 and a half years old. I was paying attention to the big world at the same time I was being an eighth grade kid. I remember the halls of Horace Mann School in Chicago, along with my teachers and my classrooms. Having attended a kindergarten through 8th grade school, I was finally at the top of the pile. I was a good student back then, striving to be on the honor roll.

I was an office helper and a play leader which would earn me service recognition in addition to scholarship awards. When I wore my blue and white graduation ribbons, I would wear a gold pin with blue lettering in their center, acknowledgment that I’d done well. I remember my friends and my crushes from those days, young people who formed the core of my social life, through high school and beyond. I considered myself a basically happy kid with the average worries that are the hallmarks of those bridge years between childhood and young adult life. Thanks to freewheeling family conversations, I also knew a bit about Chicago politics, along with current national issues. I was aware of civil rights inequities and the Bay of Pigs invasion. A child of the Cold War, I worried about nuclear destruction. And then there was the war in Vietnam, vague but unsettling.

Family dinner, fall 1963. My brother took the photo

I don’t suppose anything could have prepared a child, or an adult for that matter, for November 22nd, 1963. That Friday I left school and went home for a quick lunch. Horace Mann didn’t have a cafeteria and, conveniently, I lived right across the street. No one was home, so I ate quickly, then ambled down the block to my friend Judy’s house for a bit of socializing before returning to school for the remainder of the day. Judy’s parents and grandmother all were home and had just seen the bulletin on the television news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Anxiety and fear were palpable in the adults, rapidly spreading to us kids. We were told that the best thing we could do was return to school. Before too long, as we sat in our rooms, we were all alerted to the fact that Kennedy was dead. I was in French class with Mrs. Shannon teaching at the front of the room. She sent for a television set which was wheeled into the room on a cart. She told us that we could watch the news or put our heads down on our desks, whichever made us most comfortable. Some kids were crying. I watched the television, mostly seeing the same images and hearing the same announcements over and over. Somehow the school day ended. On Friday evenings, our family usually had dinner with my grandparents. We drove to Blue Island, a suburb on the southwest side of Chicago, where we all ate our supper in front of the black and white screen. I remember both the nervous uncertainty we all felt, coupled with the comfort of our familiar routine. Every time anyone tried to be funny, though, we all felt somewhat embarrassed and weird. The rest of the weekend was spent watching the news unfold, when like most Americans who had televisions, we were riveted by that box which meted out all the photos and videos, Jackie’s bloodstained suit, LBJ being sworn in as President on Air Force One, Bobby Kennedy helping Jackie from the plane. In those moments, in my innocence, I felt like everyone in the country was experiencing the same emotions. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live tv. Weren’t we all alike then, during that terrifying moment? I couldn’t possibly have conceived that there were people who were glad to see the young, relatively liberal Kennedy go down. I didn’t understand the complexity of the divisions that were always seething in this country, no matter what the tragedies, small and large, every day.

Graduation day, 1964

In June, 1964, I learned more about how suddenly everything can change and go dark. My brother, who was impulsive, unstable and heartbroken over losing his longtime girlfriend to her acting ambitions, had quit college and enlisted for four years in the Air Force. His hitch would ultimately take him to the Philippines where he would become well-acquainted with the burgeoning war in Vietnam. On the morning of my eighth grade graduation, my little toddler cousin died of a common, and today, curable bronchiolitis. My parents needed to be with my grieving aunt, uncle and young nephew. Wearing my older sister’s hand-me-down prom dress, I went through my big day without the support and pride of my mom and dad. I think maybe my sister snapped the photo of me. My thoughts were getting more complex. Just what kind of world was this anyway? What huge gaps existed between so many groups in our culture? I thought that maybe life would get significantly better when in July, 1964, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Ostensibly, it did, as archaic Jim Crow rules were dismantled, allowing everyone the same privileges I’d thought were constitutionally guaranteed. But again, I was naïve. Growing up in the tumultuous ‘60’s, I learned more about racial injustice, class injustice and sexism. I wanted to be on what I felt was the right side of history and spent years convinced that ultimately, with enough hard work, real change would finally happen.

Me speaking at a demonstration in the early’70’s. Photo: Tom P.

Fifty eight years have passed since the Kennedy assassination. On this evening before that anniversary, I find myself remembering Marvin Gaye’s 1970 anthem, “What’s Going On,” which marked that moment when an artist transitioned into political discourse. The lyrics are still so relevant today as I mull over the brazen, out-in-the-open racism that remains a blight on this country. Yes, that song was more a commentary on the tumultuous societal discord over the Vietnam war, but that war was also riddled with racial inequities. I am stunned by the decision of the jury who acquitted a young white male, who drove across state lines with an automatic weapon, ostensibly to police a demonstration, who shot and killed two people and wounded a third. An acquittal. I watched the judge in that trial behave with blatant prejudice. Anyone who lives in this country knows that its judicial system is grossly unfair to people of color and particularly to those with black skin. The people rallying behind this flawed, racist justice are in the same cohort as those systematically gerrymandering voting districts in multiple states to ensure the disenfranchisement of those people who overwhelmingly sent a Democrat to the White House in 2020. The same people who have decried the “rigged, stolen” election are systematically working to ensure that the next one will be their get. I am no longer naïve. But, what’s going on? Fear, lies and misrepresentations are providing cover for what apparently is the civil war which never really ended. Although certainly not the majority, the angles by which a minority can control the outcomes of elections, legislation and the courts is being actively pursued and designed by that minority. Unnerving polls suggest almost a somnolence by large swaths of the population which say they want what is being attempted by the current government in power, while also stating that they’re ready for a change. Trying to make sense of the contradictions is maddening. So much nonsense is accepted without analysis. I can’t understand how to think my way through what to me is essentially unthinkable. What’s going on? I am saddened, horrified, angry and mystified all at once. Scared, too. We live in a culture that is like an armed camp, where violence is pervasive and life is held in low regard. Dystopian is a word that’s tossed around frequently but I’m thinking nihilism is more apt. I am unnerved by all of it.

Other Novembers in my life have been marked by eye-opening sadness since that first momentous one in 1963. Tomorrow marks the loss of a dear young thirteen year old girl, Molly, a friend of my daughter’s whose death on the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination made tragedy even more palpable and unthinkable than I’d imagined. In November of 2013, Michael, who’d seemed to have outmaneuvered his Merkel Cell cancer discovered in 2012, had a CT scan which showed widespread bony metastatic disease. He was given a prognosis of two to three months, absent treatment. What a dark holiday season we shared at the end of that November. Of course, with luck and much research, we squeezed out a few more wonderful years together. But Novembers are sobering for me. And in this one, as I remember the others, I ponder what’s going on and what will be with a significant amount of trepidation.

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