Growing up, I never understood why my parents talked about the JFK assassination the way they did. The slightest reference to it and suddenly they were both recounting every detail of their lives on the day it happened. Something happened to them when they reminisced about where they were when they heard the president had been shot, a physical change: a faraway look in the eye, an expression of bewilderment tinged with sorrow. It was as if they'd momentarily traveled back in time to November 22, 1963. They were little kids again, 8 and 9 years old, and the ground had shifted under their feet. It could never be put back to where it was before.
In my life, the JFK assassination was just another thing that happened before the world began -- an historical curiosity that had as much relevance as the Black Plague or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Important, sure, and interesting, but hardly worth worrying about. Getting into college was worth worrying about, trying to talk to girls even more so. Nobody cared about anything that really mattered in the 1990s and into this century, because nothing that mattered was happening. Remember what the news stories were in August of 2001? A ginned-up controversy about a congressman and a missing intern, and how that crazy Britney Spears performed at the MTV Video Music Awards with a snake around her shoulders.
Funny how quickly things can change. I won't bore you with my 9/11 story. It's no different or more interesting than anyone else's, and I was fortunate not to be touched directly by the attacks. The point is that I have a story now, and so do you, and so does everybody else who was near a TV or a radio or, God forbid, New York, Washington, or Shanksville. And we feel that look come over us when we think about 9/11, the one I used to see on my parents' faces when they thought about JFK. The slow shake of the head, the unfocused eyes, the uncomprehending frown. We remember every detail.
Eight years is getting to be a long time. On the morning of the attacks, President Bush was reading to a class of second graders. Those kids are sophomores in high school now. 9/11 is literally a lifetime away for them. My nephews, who are 4 and 2 years old, won't know a world that wasn't shaped by that day. But they also won't recognize the look in our eyes when we talk about it. They won't understand why the slightest reference to that day zaps us all back in time, sets us off on a 10-minute monologue detailing everything we did that morning. I hope they never will understand.
And I know, although it breaks my heart, that someday they will.