The word grassy means covered with grass. I’m so certain of that, I didn’t even bother to look it up. The word knoll refers to a small hill. I did check that one. There doesn’t seem to be a precise definition, however. No minimum or maximum height or diameter, for example. No size requirement at all. I could build a knoll in my backyard with a shovel and a few hours of pointless labor.
Imagine, then, how many grassy knolls there are in the world. There must be millions of them. But for an entire generation – people my age and just about anyone older — the phrase grassy knoll brings to mind a specific time and place. The effect is immediate, and unavoidable.
It was Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. The weather was warm for a day so close to the start of winter. I was in the third grade. We were back from lunch and getting ready to go home for the weekend. Looking ahead, the following Thursday was Thanksgiving, and when we returned to school after that, we’d have already begun to nibble our way through December, and toward the long Christmas break. It was one of those perfect spots of childhood, from which so many good things could be seen right up ahead, and almost within reach. There wasn’t much we could imagine that would spoil the feeling.
Then the principal’s voice, blunt and muffled and crackling, broke into our happy dream world to tell us that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. She returned soon after to let us know that the president was dead.
I want to say that we were shocked, and I suppose we were. But it had already been a shocking year, and we were somewhat accustomed to unthinkable news. In May, the monsignor of our church had passed away. Monsignor was our leader, the most blessed man we knew, someone who could elicit gentle smiles and reverence from the grouchiest of nuns. I’m pretty sure his had been my introduction to death, and to the stark truth that no one was immune.
A month later, Pope John XXIII died in his bed at the Vatican, something I hadn’t even thought possible. The pope was almost God, I believed, a person surrounded by enough prayer and statues and holy water to protect him from mortal menace in all its forms. Still, he’d lived eighty-one years, an incomprehensible span for those of us who hadn’t yet completed our first decade. The pope was older than my grandmother, and she was ancient.
Then, in August, the president’s infant son was born, premature, and survived just a few days. It was becoming clear that neither age nor position could prevent or delay the inevitable end of life, and that our human perception of fairness had nothing to do with it.
For some reason, though, the assassination of JFK was different. Those other deaths had been large and fuzzy, like a strong wind that blows through and then disappears. The news from the classroom loudspeaker on the twenty-second of November was more like a tornado. We could see it, watch it move slowly across our television screens, and examine the destruction it left behind. For young children now familiar with air raid drills and the impending horrors of nuclear war, the murder of the president also demonstrated how flimsy and porous our security really was. Whether or not we wanted to acknowledge it, we were all riding in the back seat of an open convertible. And no matter how many loving faces there were, beaming at us from the crowd, a single disturbed mind – or a small, conspiratorial group with evil intent — could produce immeasurable damage. This is a lesson we’re still learning, a half-century later.
The events of that day, the spectacle of the next week, and the lingering sadness that seemed to seep into every pore of our existence, all served to remind us that everything had changed. Even our language. I can’t hear the words motorcade, depository, or plaza without being snapped back to that moment in 1963, and to the man whose body now rests beside a grassy knoll at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was a Friday afternoon. The weather was warm for a day so close to the start of winter. Many good things could be seen, right up ahead, and almost within reach.