Befores & Afters
We found ourself watching the news coverage again last week, from the moment the story broke to the events that followed throughout the day.
No, not that.
We were four at the time, so no memory of that. Maybe we saw Oswald getting snuffed a couple days later, maybe we didn’t. Our political awareness didn’t begin until almost five years later, with the rapid succession of LBJ dropping out, then MLK, then RFK.
The world is always changing that way, days when America Will Never Be the Same Again. Our parents were born a few years after one of those days, the stock market crash of 1929. They lived to see Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis — and that day in November 1963, which we never thought to ask them about.
We had our own Days to deal with. We’ve had plenty since.
We don’t recall much observance of the twentieth anniversary of Dallas, although that may be because we had stopped watching television by then. An acquaintance insists it got plenty of attention, but when your birthday is November 22, you notice those things. But the world we had grown up in was After, not Before, and Camelot was just another given, a precondition of our existence.
We didn’t live through that. Nixon we lived through. The wage-price freeze we lived through. The gas lines we lived through. Reagan we were living through.
We had known those Befores, contrasted with those Afters. Those weren’t the hand we were dealt, but hands being played, usually poorly. Possible, better, futures were being precluded as we went. But the moment we were born into, under a 49-star flag, well, can’t help that. That’s just the baseline. The First Before.
We’re twenty years into the Post-That Era now, and there’s now a generation of adults, drinking legal beer and — golly! — smoking legal weed, for whom there is no Before, only After: The wars, the hurricane, the crash, the black dude, the crazy dude. That’s their world. That’s all their world, just as you’d have to get beyond the Tet Offensive to start ours. And while we may have another twenty years before we check out, they’re staring down another fifty or sixty.
We wonder about them, the kids who will live to see most of this century, the kids just behind them who will see the start of the next. Those of us who can tell you where we were that morning have been dying off ever since, our stories as mouldering as Jack & Marilyn & Camelot & the Thousand Days.
America changed forever in November 1963, just as it changed forever in September 2001, just as it’s been changing forever forever, but that’s not the Before & After that would preoccupy us if we were 24 today. The world’s melting, man. The joint’s burning. Water’s drying up. Oh, and that fucking pandemic, too.
If we’re 24 today, forty years from now we’re gonna marvel how a whole country got its knickers in a twist over some fucking french fries. Because America may have changed forever that day, but the whole damn world changed forever in the days since.