... I had just turned nineteen. I had begun my sophomore year at Hiram College and had recently switched my major from elementary education to ... religion and philosophy. This is not so odd as it sounds. My grandfather, my uncle, my father--all were ordained ministers in the Disciples of Christ (the denomination that in 1850 had founded what would become Hiram College), and I was starting to think (though think may be too strong a term for what I was doing) that perhaps the ministry was my ... destiny. Sounds portentous (pretentious?), I know, but I was young, full of self-importance and thoughts of Destiny.
I had lived at home my freshman year (my dad taught at Hiram), but my parents had wearied of me pretty quickly (I added several definitions to the OED that year for obnoxious) and had allowed me to move up into the dorms--Whitcomb Hall, #214 (I think). I was deliriously happy. I had the advantages of the dorm (no parents) and of home (food, occasional cash, laundry machines, a car). Also I was a ... sophomore, no longer a lowly frosh subject to the cruel whims of the upperclassmen. Graduation seemed an age away--nearly three years! It was looking pretty certain that I would live forever.
An added bonus that fall: My parents and younger brother were in Greece for six weeks. Dad had won some sort of fellowship, and they had invited me, too--but in one of the great dimwitted miscalculations of my youth I decided I would be better off in Hiram, Ohio. (I've still not been to Greece.) So now--no parents! A house! A car!
That fall we got word that Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis (adjacent to the Butler U. campus) was hosting a gathering for young men and women who were considering a career as a Disciples minister. A benefit: My uncle Ronald Osborn was the dean there and taught church history. His daughter, Virginia, was a few years younger than I, but we were good friends. And I adored my aunt Naomi, as well. So ... a no-brainer. I had a car, a desire to get away from campus. And a college acquaintance, Gene Higgins, wanted to go along as well, and showed his gratitude by picking up the gas expenses.
We left Hiram on the morning of 22 November 1963 and drove south and west, hitting I-70 south of Delaware, Ohio. I don't remember what we talked about (okay, I do remember some of it, but I have too much self-respect to share it--but think about a couple of randy nineteen-year-olds, and I'm sure you won't have much trouble identifying the subjects), but I remember having a good time with Gene, whom I didn't really know all that well (though we were in the same fraternity at Hiram) and who, I was discovering, had a wacky sense of humor.
We were listening to the radio.
Not long after we crossed the Indiana border, a news bulletin. Shots fired in Dallas. President Kennedy had been hit.
And it seemed only moments later that the second bulletin came: President Kennedy is dead.
My father was a Republican; so was my mother (though, later on, she became an outspoken Democrat and always told me that she voted for Kennedy). All three sons were Republicans, too (I'd never really thought about why, of course--I just went along with my parents); now, all three of us are Dems. My dad lived to see this shift and was not happy about it. My brothers and I agreed not to talk politics with Dad: It did no good. Everyone got angry. No point.
Driving into Indianapolis, Gene and I saw the most emotional things from inside the car. Of course, we could not hear what was going on outside (our radio remained on; our windows were up), but we could see the news traveling through the streets of the city. We could see people tell one another what had happened. Looks of disbelief. People embracing. Slumping to the ground in grief, arms reaching to the sky. Outside the car--a silent movie, a powerful, wrenching one, with the awful news from Dallas providing an odd soundtrack inside the car.
The assassination had a profound effect, as you can guess, on our conference. It was the subject even when it wasn't the subject.
I found myself unaccountably moved, too. I had hated it when JFK won the election. I was certain the country would go to Hell in half a year. When we watched the Nixon-Kennedy Debates on TV, we all cheered for Nixon, were confident he had destroyed the young Senator from Massachusetts. And now ...?
It was a quiet ride back to Ohio, back to Hiram. I was taking Public Speaking that term (a requirement for prospective teachers), and the professor, William Clark, came into class that day and delivered the lyrical eulogy that Sen. Mike Mansfield (link to speech on YouTube; link to text) had given in the Capitol Rotunda on 24 November. After Prof. Clark spoke--there were tears in his eyes, a catch in his voice--he dismissed the class. And we looked at one another in wonder.
I lost track of Gene Higgins after commencement. I know he went into the ministry and that he served for quite a while in Stow, Ohio--but I never saw him. My beloved cousin Virginia died in a freak automobile accident during spring break of her freshman year at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. My uncle Ronald and aunt Naomi--both gone. My father died in 1999. My mother clings to her sharply circumscribed life at 94.
And so I remember 22 November 1963 as a time--the first time in my life--when I realized the fragility of it all, a fragility whose cruel reality I have witnessed over and over and over again in the ensuing half-century. We are guaranteed only the very instant of now. Anything beyond--our very next breath, the next beat of the heart--is a gift of incalculable value.