A year ago, I took an acting class for writers at Chicago Dramatists, a theater company devoted to new works. I certainly didn’t leave with any Tony-winning moves, I’ll say that, but I’d recommend it to anyone who strings together subjects and verbs for a living. Performing your work makes you a better writer. Try it.
Our first assignment was to create a monologue based on our earliest conscious memory. I might have tried for something earlier to seem a bit more precocious, but I stuck with something on the calendar that I figured everyone in my class – my audience — could relate to.
It was about what happened 50 years ago today. I was four years old.
As we’ve been hearing for weeks, indeed, for the last half-century, John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a transformative event in the lives of everyone who lived through it. But it was particularly so for anyone who lived through that long weekend on television. I was too young to grasp the intensity of fear and uncertainty most adults felt at that time – but I was at just the right age to find the oddity of such events electrifying. My parents – never fans of the Kennedys – spent Friday to Monday in a state of silence and discomfort I’d never witnessed before.
My monologue focused on one aspect of that weekend: The war my mother and I fought over whether TV would be left off or on. That war eventually reached a crescendo on that Sunday after Kennedy died:
Day 3. In the living room, it was almost lunchtime and I had flicked the TV on again when Mom left for the kitchen. I tuned in just in time to see the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. I heard a pan clatter and suddenly my mother was back, hurling herself at the TV, nearly forgetting I was in front of it. She practically ripped the dial off the set. Finally, I was a little afraid. A long pause after the room fell silent. She stared at the wall and then turned to me. “Now. No more TV until I say so. Go play or read until it’s time to eat.” She walked back to the kitchen, passing my teenaged sister along the way – “Watch her,” she muttered.
For me, JFK’s murder was a dress rehearsal for the chaos I’d grow up watching on television for the rest of the decade. First JFK, then MLK and RFK. The drumbeat of Vietnam that disposed of LBJ. The ’68 Democratic Convention that had my father grumbling. And by the end of the decade, the Manson Family murders. As I got older, my parents kept trying to control my viewing and reading – they were particularly worried about all the books on the Kennedys I was checking out at the library in grade school. Dad made his own hilarious contribution to the censorship effort by trying to keep me from watching the Smothers Brothers and their increasingly anti-war antics every Sunday night. “Come in and watch ‘Bonanza’ with me,” he’d plead. “But this is funny,” I’d respond, and he’d roll his eyes and leave.
It sounds a bit ridiculous to say a murder 50 years ago made me choose a particular career. But it clearly made me a more curious kid, even more relentlessly so thanks to the actions of parents who simply wanted to protect me from events that still affect us today. I look back at my folks and I don’t see two ogres, I just see two middle-aged people who were absolutely terrified about how this unprecedented tsunami of words and images would affect me. To a degree, their worst fears were realized – media became the third parent in the room for me, a counterbalancing but often disruptive force to whatever was being said at the dinner table. It made me more independent, more questioning – and it gave me, as my Mom would often say, “a bit of a mouth.”
I ended the monologue with a moment in 1969, watching what had to be one of the lowest-rated public funerals ever — Dwight Eisenhower’s:
I was laying on my sister’s bed – she was away at college but was lucky enough to have the portable Motorola waiting for her in her room. My Mom, carrying the laundry, stuck her head in and we both watched for a second. “Sometimes I think you’ve grown up just watching death,” she said. Maybe she hadn’t intended to say that out loud. I turned back to her and as she stared at the screen, arms folded, her expression more thoughtful than angry. “It’s history, isn’t it?” I responded, a bit defensively. She took a second and responded, “Yes. It is. I’m just sorry you’ve seen so much of it like this.”