So, I’m at a critical point writing the climax to my latest thriller, STILL NOT DEAD, and I need to solve this puzzle: what event can I create that would stop almost everybody in the world from doing whatever they’re doing for at least a second? Sounds crazy, right? Well, our heroes need a distraction, a diversion while they execute a delicate maneuver that will impact every living being on earth for .3416 seconds.
Writers, especially crazy scifi-thriller writers like me, have to solve storyline problems like my split-second diversion quandary all the time. So how do we do that? For me, I searched my personal memories for moments in my life where the world literally stopped.
Certainly, there have been epic global events in all our lives, events where everyone dropped what they were doing and glued themselves to a TV, and before that, a radio, and now a phone or a computer. Some of these events were grand and wonderful, like the first men landing on the moon in 1969. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was watching and listening. I wrote about this in my post, Moon Landing Memories, and over 20 readers added their own recollections of, where were you that day? But unfortunately, more of those memorable stop-the-world moments seem to have been tragic, like 9/11.
If I had to pick the one event in my life that stopped everything around the world, it would be the Kennedy Assassination in 1963. Some of you may not have even been born yet. I was twelve years old. That day, that freeze-frame in time may have encapsulated everyone’s typical day gone awry.
Where was I on 11/22/63? Let me set the stage. My father died when I was a year old. My mother, who was a typical 50s housemaker was thrown into a strange reality the day my father, only forty-nine years old, collapsed on the bathroom floor. A heart attack. The love of my mother’s life, the father of three small children, and the breadwinner was suddenly gone.
Her financial situation forced her to go to work, which meant from age six, I was pretty much on my own most of the time. Now, one of my biggest shortcomings back then was that I had buck teeth, a defect that subjected me to the endless scorn and ridicule of your typical schoolyard bullies. I can still hear, “Hey, Bugs Bunny!”
To address this deficiency, my mother signed me up with a young orthodontist in Irvington, New Jersey, several miles from our home. When I say he was young, I’m guessing I was his first patient out of dental school and accordingly, he cut my cash-strapped mother a break. Since my mother was busy all day every day at work, I would take the bus alone from East Orange to Irvington every few weeks to have metal and rubber bands added, removed, and added again for nine years (I know, it’s a really long time, maybe a record). From age eight to sixteen, I dutifully made the pilgrimage to Dr. Dawdle’s office to be stretched, fitted, plucked, and pulled (the doctor’s name has been changed to protect me from a lawsuit and to reflect his alacrity).
When I say I took the bus, it was a bit more involved. I would walk the two blocks from our apartment on South Harrison Street down Elmwood Avenue to the bus stop on Sanford Avenue and wait twenty minutes to a half-hour for the #24 to Irvington. After a twenty-minute ride left me off at Springfield Avenue. I would then walk another mile to the doc’s office. On the walk, I would cross a bridge over the Garden State Parkway, a six-lane Indie500 that people think of when they think of New Jersey.
It was crossing the bridge that taught me the meaning of the word vertigo in a very visceral way. I had to force myself not to look down for fear of plunging head-first into the insane traffic. Combine that with the car exhaust fumes, in the days before catalytic converters scrubbed the noxious car emissions, and I felt like this whole routine was punishment for some unspoken crime. Me, a twelve-year-old Kafka in a cross between The Trial and Groundhog Day. Anyway, the entire trip took me about an hour and a half each way. A three-hour commute for a 30-minute session in the torture chamber.
Now you have the context. So, on a fateful day, November 22, 1963. I was on my way back home from the orthodontist, waiting for the bus on the corner of Sanford and Springfield. There was a late fall chill in the air. It was sunny and people were going about their business. Suddenly, a woman with a long red coat and swirly black hat ran into the street, stopping traffic. She shouted the words I’ll never forget. “The president’s been shot! The president’s been shot!”
The World Stopped
The world stopped. The cars stopped. People crowded around the appliance store window staring in shock and disbelief at the black-and-white images of the Parkland Memorial Hospital waiting for news. Men wept openly. Strangers hugged. Then, it started, almost with a whisper, “O beautiful for spacious skies…” Others joined in, until everyone in full voice sang, “God shed his grace on thee…” When it was over, there was an eerie moment of utter silence. Then quiet nods, handshakes, pats on the back as people drifted off back to their no longer normal lives. And there I stood on the corner of Sanford and Springfield. Not yet a teenager, growing up that day.
Similar scenes took place not just in the U.S., but around the world. Walter Cronkite, with tears in his eyes, recited what little he knew at the time about what actually happened. The gunman on the sixth floor of the Texas School Depository Building. Maybe another on the grassy knoll. The black limousine, the president, and Jackie, and Governor Connelly. The secret service agent climbing on the trunk of the car, all in vain.
Yes, the world stopped that day and for several days after as we learned about Lee Harvey Oswald, and then two days later Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. All very weird and mysterious, the stuff that bore conspiracy theories for decades to come.
Back to my writer’s quandary. I needed an event like the Kennedy assassination that would stop everything. I think I found one and you’ll have to read STILL NOT DEAD when it’s published this year to find out what happens. But I can tell you this much: after nine years of regular visits to the orthodontist and six years after President Kennedy died, it was time for me to head off to college. On my last ever appointment (I could drive to his office by now), Dr. Dawdle fitted me for a retainer designed to lock my top and bottom teeth into place all night, every night for the foreseeable. Great. When I left his office for the last time, I made a decision. It wasn’t a tough decision, and I made it quickly. On Springfield Ave, I found the nearest garbage can and dropped my new, unused retainer into it. I had more important things to do.
Where Were You on 11/22/63?
If you were around in 1963 and have a memory of where you were and what you did that fateful day, please share in the comments below. It helps us all who were there then to share our experiences and deal with the collective trauma which still lingers.
Years later, I helped create a full semester course dedicated to the Kennedy Assassination. I read many books, studied the forensics, and pre-Internet, pre cell phone cameras, managed to grab a pirated copy of the famous Zapruder film, an amateur 8mm movie, and the sole video record of that day and that event.
You could say I was obsessed, but I wasn’t alone. I think the better word might be aggrieved, as Kennedy was like a beloved member of all our families. I was inspired to write this story by one of my favorite authors, Bob Katz, who wrote about his obsession with the assassination. And Bob even did something about it. You can read his story here: Bob Dylan, the JFK Assassination, and My Frantic Quest to Connect the Two
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