Friday, April 26, 2013

The generational history gap revisited

The other day during a short trip to Washington, D.C., Monique and I revisited Camelot, provoking further concern about the generational history gap.

The Newseum's Kennedy exhibit will be open through Jan. 4, 2014.
The occasion was the John F. Kennedy display at the Newseum, the cavernous media museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. We began with the images that helped create Camelot: family, campaign and White House photographs shot by Jacques Lowe, a freelancer given access to Kennedy and his family from 1956 to 1962.

The pictures are lovely, the exhibit superb, even offering visitors a chance to finger through digitized contact sheets and blow up their choices. And yet I wished the museum had pointed out prominently the mythical nature of the pictures. Kennedy, after all, was not the wonderful husband and family man depicted here.

Nov. 22 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination. This national tragedy is observed on one of the Newseum’s upper floors. I was 17 when Kennedy was shot and have written about that day before (you can read it here). Having visited Dealey Plaza and the museum in the Book Depository, seen the Zapruder film a hundred times and edited a newspaper through years of conspiracy theories and anniversaries, I thought I was Kennedy-ed out. But I found myself returned to that day during the Newseum’s blow-by-blow account of how Americans first learned the news from Dallas.

Then, as we toured the rest of the assassination display (Oswald’s shirt, objects from his pockets, the UPI bulletin that JFK was dead), we heard loud young voices wisecracking, laughing and cutting up. A dozen or so boys 13 and 14 years old seemed oblivious to the solemnity of the story told by the pictures and artifacts of the assassination.

Their behavior shook Monique and me out of our reverie, and they would not shut up. Monique’s career as a middle-school teacher included many museum trips with students. Near the end of the exhibit, she turned to one of the boys as he joked and jostled with his pals. “It’s not funny,” she said.

A moment like this makes you feel your age. Why should young people today respect the memories of those who have lived with the Kennedy assassination for half a century? It is as ancient to them as the Garfield assassination. And the tools and products of media of the early 1960s – teletype machines, clunky cameras, black-and-white television, live broadcasts in which people off-camera whisper the latest bulletins to the anchor? Gutenberg, anyone?

Still, our pique hadn’t subsided the next morning when we set off for a walk down the National Mall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We were standing in front of Panel 9W and had just found Robert L. King on line 122 when a group of girls of middle-school age came up to speak with us. For a project on their trip to Washington, the girls were asking people at tourist attractions what being there meant to them.

I told the girls I had known many men named on the wall and visited them as often as I could. I did not know Robert Louis King, but I was on the Army funeral detail that buried him in Anderson, S.C., in July 1970. Twenty-five years after firing three shots at his grave, I called his family and wrote a newspaper column about him.

I told the girls at the wall what I remembered about him, including how much he loved his ’57 Chev. They listened respectfully, asked good questions, took notes and made a wall-rubbing of King’s name.

So this was the other side of the equation. No doubt prompted by parents or teachers, these young girls went looking for the meaning of the past and found a piece of it in me. And we left Washington feeling a little less curmudgeonly about rising generations than we had just the day before.

On the same subject . . .

In response to my recent post about trying to convey the importance of history to our grandchildren, my friend Al Hutchison  emailed me the following:

Your latest blog entry reminds me that for some time now I’ve been quietly alarmed over the lack of history knowledge that shows up so often in my conversations and readings. I was struck after Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation was published by tales I heard of young people being amazed to learn that the geezer down the street was actually a tail gunner or fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

The teaching of history has too often been left to football coaches and others who read their textbooks the day before the next lesson.

I curse myself that I never quizzed an uncle who was in one of the great naval battles of World War I. I was able to quiz my father, who had even more wartime adventures than my uncle, but I didn’t take notes.

A true story: Just before I retired from a newspaper career in 1999, I was invited to speak to a grade school class in Berlin, Vt. I told the class that we’d put on a mock press conference and that they’d be the reporters and they could ask me any question they wanted (they knew I was a journalist and that’s about it). It all went very well, but one moment stands out.

“What was the biggest story you were ever involved in?” a boy asked me.

“Oh, I suppose it was the assassination of President Kennedy,” I replied.

“You were ALIVE then?” the kid asked.

I should have reminded him it was JFK’s assassination, not Lincoln’s, I was talking about, but I wasn’t that swift.

You might wonder what my “involvement” was: The afternoon of the assassination I put out what I’m sure was the very last EXTRA the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg ever published. [Read all about it here.]

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