Fast forward to the morning of September 11, 2001. Before leaving my apartment to meet with students in my office in a Harvard humanities building, I submitted the new story due later that week for my low-res MFA program (I’m always beating deadlines like that: see “Pünktlichkeit”). The story was titled “Calendar Man”; many revisions later, it received an honorable mention in a Boston-area contest and ended up published by The Pedestal magazine.
It’s a story I’ve read aloud several times, at the celebratory contest reading and in other instances. And I have to confess that a chill always runs through me when I read the part that references the Kennedy assassination’s aftermath as the history-focused protagonist, Jack Dougherty, recalls it:
The movie. In truth, they had been movie-like, those November days. The opening, captured on Zapruder’s camera, even if they hadn’t seen those frames right away. For days they’d stared at the television; everyone was in on it, in on the action of this movie. There was Walter Cronkhite, removing his glasses. And his own real-life father, sober before the screen those days and nights, out of respect. His mother, praying, weeping, praying. His older sister, talking above the other voices about sending birthday presents to Caroline and John-John, because it was important to keep things as normal as possible for the children. The film continued through the funeral; everyone else spoke of the beautiful widow, and the tiny boy’s salute, but Jack’s eyes followed the tall French President, the proud General looking for the first time a little humble, yes, humble, and sad. He wouldn’t have looked that way for FDR, (he’d probably just sent someone else across the ocean for that occasion, though he’d been his country’s leader back then, as well). So this, too, was the power of a single stranger concealed in a southwestern Book Depository. To make even Charles de Gaulle acknowledge that the world would never be the same minus the man who had accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.