Posted: Nov 22, 2013 12:01 AM

There's a certain slant of light

On winter afternoons,

That oppresses, like the heft

Of cathedral tunes . . .

It's November 22nd. For some of us, the date catches our attention every year. And holds it, fixes it in our mind. This year it's caught the whole country's.

For it's been 50 years today that it happened. And the memories come back: stark, looming, black. Unstoppable. And we live it again and again, moment by moment, as in a flashback that won't go away, our own Groundhog Day that keeps repeating.

It is always 12:29 p.m. Dallas time when the motorcade comes into sight. Nothing ever changes in the immutable past, no matter how much we want it to. We can't stop watching as the awful day unwinds like the Zapruder film, frame by frame:

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 towards 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.

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 22.

None of us will forget where we were when we heard. I was taking the subway to a job interview in Manhattan. A dirty, disheveled man came down the aisle -- nothing unusual in the New York subway -- but he leaned over, whispered something in my ear, and moved on to whisper it to the next passenger, and the next, and the next.

It took me a while to make 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 would finally be important, memorable, somebody. Like a journalist with a scoop. He would finally live in somebody else's memory. As he does in mine. One day every year.

I walked up out of the subway station in lower Manhattan still pondering what the dirty man had said. I was on my way to see an editor about a job. Everything seemed dirtier than usual, the downtown din even more depressing than usual as I walked the couple of blocks to the gray office building. I felt shabby, much like the dirty city itself.

The old editor I was asking for a job seemed defeated. We didn't talk about the job. Instead, we looked out his office window and watched Manhattan's flags being lowered to half-staff one by one as word spread and the afternoon light turned sad yellow as it filtered down through lower Manhattan's deep canyons.

The editor talked about how it had felt the day FDR died in Warm Springs.

Certain days stay in the mind. Like a film that is rewound and replayed again and again. As much as you'd like to stop it. Each time. But you can't.

Years later, 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 p.m., Dallas time, November 22, 1963.

Never again, I 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 our 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, that depends on the vigilance and valor of others every moment. For which we should be thankful every day. But we forget.

Then, jolted awake one awful day, 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 the fleeting nature of power is just a date on the calendar ... and a certain slant of light.

When it comes, the landscape listens--

Shadows hold their breath--

When it goes, 'tis like the distance

On the look of death.

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