November 22nd. In the middle of the car wreck or the plunge down the mountainside, or in the mind of the drowning, time slows, then stops-the way it does for some Americans every year when the page of the calendar is torn away and today's date revealed: November 22nd.
It is always 12:29 Dallas time when the motorcade comes into sight. Nothing ever changes in the immutable past, no matter how much we want it to.
Emily Dickinson's certain slant of light is captured forever in the Zapruder film we can't stop watching:Click. The presidential limousine coming down Houston makes a sharp left onto Elm.
Click. The president is smiling, waving.
Click. Mrs. Kennedy looks at him with concern.
Click. A bystander jerks his head suddenly toward Dealey Plaza.
Click. The limousine is lost behind a street sign.
Click. The president reaches for his throat, slumps toward his wife.
Click. The governor of Texas, seated in front of the president, falls forward.
Click. The shattering impact.
Click. Mrs. Kennedy rises.
Click. She is pushed back into the car by a Secret Service agent.
Click. The limousine disappears from view beneath an underpass, headed for Parkland Hospital and history.
The film runs 15 seconds. And an eternity.
None of us will forget where we were when we heard. I was on the subway heading for a job interview in Manhattan. A dirty, disheveled man came down the aisle-nothing unusual in a New York subway-but he leaned over and whispered something in my ear, and then moved on to whisper it to the next passenger, and the next, and the next. It took me a while to make any meaning of the slurred words, and then absorb them:
"They shot Kennedy in Dallas. They shot Kennedy in Dallas. They shot Kennedy in Dallas."
I could see him enter the next car and do the same. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy telling the tale.
At last he knew something no one else did-at least for the moment. And he had seized the moment. He had found a way to live in others' memories. He would finally be important, memorable, somebody. Like a journalist with a scoop.
I walked up out of the subway station in lower Manhattan to see a man about a job, and everything seemed dirtier than usual, the din even more depressing as I walked the couple of blocks to the gray office building.
The old editor I was meeting seemed defeated. We didn't talk about the job. Instead, we looked out his office window to see Manhattan's flags being lowered to half-staff one by one as the word spread and the afternoon light turned yellow in New York's dingy canyons.
The editor talked about how it had felt the day FDR died.
Certain days stay in the mind. Like a film that is unwound and replayed again and again. As much as you'd like to stop it. Each time. But you can't.
Years later, the phone would ring and I would turn the television on to see the jetliners strike the buildings again and again. In an endless loop. As much as you'd like to stop it, to turn it off, you can't.
To watch the Zapruder film is like that. It is to see the destruction of the temple again and again. Nothing ever changes. It is always 12:29, Dallas time, November 22, 1963.
Never again, one thought at the time, would Americans take their country so lightly, their institutions so for granted.
But time passes and fortune changes, and some years the day passes almost unnoticed.
Then some new crisis erupts, and people are reminded again of how fragile society really is. We are jerked awake, and realize that life is shipwreck. And that our way of life is not a machine that runs by itself after all, but one that requires daily heroism. Suddenly awake, we look differently at the uniforms that guard us while we sleep. And all it takes to remind us of the fragility of life and power is just a date on the calendar and a certain slant of light.