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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting about story quilts, and one of the topics was Hmong story quilts, made by immigrants from Laos who were uprooted by the Vietnam War. The presenter, in her twenties, asked anyone knew of the Vietnam War, and I laughed out loud. Later I apologized, and we talked about how every generation experiences its own defining events. She said for her it was 911. In my parents' generation it was the the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In my generation, the Vietnam War was certainly big, but it was something that went on for so long, that you don't usually hear people ask, "Where were you during the Vietnam War?" I'd say, for my generation it's the day Kennedy was shot.
As I write this, it is the 60th anniversary of that day. I might not have remembered it, except that my youngest brother turned 60 yesterday, and his birth has been tied to that event often enough that in a family text thread he said yesterday, "Oh yes, my claim to fame." This morning, when I recalled that today is the actual day, I reflected on the many memories I have of that day and the few days that followed, and I thought I'd share them with you.
I was a junior at the Rehoboth Mission High School, living in the dorm, the first White student to integrate the dorms, not without controversy. Grades 1-12 still ate family- style dinners at noon in the Mission House then, and we'd just begun passing food around when Mr. Hoekstra, the head cook, interrupted us to tell us that the president had just been shot in Dallas. "He's in surgery now," he added. "Let's take a moment to pray for him and the surgeons." Everything stopped, and we bowed our heads for the second prayer of the meal. I remember feeling stunned, and our conversations were subdued for the rest of dinner. Before the meal was over, Mr. Hoekstra, who had been listening to the radio in the kitchen, told us the president had died, and after the meal, he prayed for our country and for Kennedy's family.
That evening we were scheduled to give a band concert, and we had band practice right after lunch. Mr. Dobbs told us there'd been some discussion about canceling the concert, but they'd decided to go ahead and to offer it as a memorial. It was especially fitting, as one of our numbers happened to be the "Navy Hymn." Before we played it that night, Mr. Dobbs dedicated the hymn to the memory of the president, who had been a lieutenant in the navy during WWII. It's such a solemn, moving piece of music with great low brass parts (I played trombone), and I know I felt the gravitas of the situation, playing with a lump in my throat.
That afternoon, I'd walked to the hospital and stood outside my mother's room, so she could lift my seventh brother to the window for me to greet him. We talked about the president's death. Most people at the mission were, unsurprisingly, Republican, while Kennedy, of course was a Democrat. He was also a Catholic, another strike against him at this conservative, Protestant mission. Some, despite that, were truly grieved, regardless of their political beliefs. They hurt with the rest of the country at this violent death. Not my mother, though. She expressed voluble annoyance about one of the nurses who had wept about the loss and the impact on us as a nation. I remember being impressed that Mr. Hoekstra, on the other hand, had felt compelled to pray as he did.
Over the next few days, we high school students who lived in the dorm sat on couches, the floor and steps in the darkened living room to watch the events taking place on the dorm parents' black-and-white TV. We repeatedly watched scenes of the Kennedys leaving the plane at Love Field, the motorcade, the shooting, LBJ taking the presidential oath with Jackie Kennedy at his side on the plane. We watched reruns of significant moments in JFK's life and presidency––him sitting in the rocker speaking to us from the Oval Office, the Cuban Missile Crisis, playing family football in Hyannis Port. And we were released from classes to watch the funeral parade.
Those were an emotional few days, and then life went on––algebra tests, reading Walt Whitman in American Literature, work detail in the school laundry. Yet people of my generation can still be heard to ask each other, "Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?" And then we have a story to tell, not only about where we were, but how we felt, personal events of those days, like a new baby in the family. It's a moment of connection, of bonding with others who had that same, overwhelming experience.
What do you consider to be the defining event(s) of your generation? If it was the Kennedy assassination, where were you when you heard?

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