We tend to think of time as something set, as in we measure time by setting our clocks. We try to be on time, etc.
But time is also amorphous, subject to our memory and emotions. Time flies. Time drags. When I was a child an hour seemed like an eternity, unless I was doing something fun. Then it seemed to fly by. Now an hour can seem like a minute, and that can be whether I’m having fun or not.
It’s been a long time now since I helped my son with a fourth-grade project. His task was to build a diorama based on an historical event. This was a fun project, because it involved the use of action figures and certainly when you’re a kid, and I found that even as an adult, working with action figures can be lots of fun.
You would think that some battle from history would have topped the list, but my son chose John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech. This was the famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, in which the American president expressed solidarity with West Berlin in the midst of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had been erected about two years before Kennedy made his speech.
The diorama was not as hard as you might think. Instead of portraying the thousands upon thousands who had come to hear the president speak, we focused on the area around the podium.
Later on I found myself doing some math, or at least trying to do some math, and according to my calculations my son’s study of Kennedy was the equivalent of my studying Calvin Coolidge when I was in fourth grade.
I did not study Coolidge in fourth grade. It’s not like I have the greatest memory, but I’m pretty sure of that. In fact, my knowledge of Coolidge, who was president from 1923 to 1929, was limited to two stories, neither of which I had ever poked at for hints of reliability.
One involved the 30th president’s reticence. One of his nicknames was “Silent Cal.” At a dinner party someone told Coolidge they’d made a bet that they could get him to say three words. His response? “You lose.”
The other was Dorothy Parker’s response to the news that Coolidge had died: “How can they tell?”
Kennedy, of course, was a different type of president, noted as much for what he said as for what he did. And he was a visible president in a way that hadn’t quite happened before thanks to the expanding emergence of visual media. His assassination, the 50th anniversary of which is approaching, for all its many significances is also significant as a marker in time, allowing us to look at what we were before and what we’ve become since.
A lot of attention is being paid now because of the anniversary. Among them is an article I read recently about how the age of television news was sparked by the assassination. This agrees to some degree with my memory.
I was just a kid, but was witness to the collective trauma, of adults halted and weeping on the streets as I made my way home after being dismissed from school.
But what I remember most was watching the funeral procession on television with my parents, and the indelible images from that day. It’s hard to forget those.