Mr. Cope's Cave: The Continental Divide


I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that this very day is the 50-year anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination. If you don’t know that by now, it can only mean that for several weeks, you’ve been trapped in a forgotten well, or kidnapped by pirates, or something.

Either that or you simply don’t care enough to pay attention. Not to throw all young people under the same subheading, but I can’t help but suspect many of them have only two time frames: “Pre-Me” and “From-Me-On.” And from that vantage, the events in Dealey Plaza belong in the same level-of-interest pile as the fall of the Roman Empire and rotary dial telephones.

While I’ve already said most of what I have to say about the assassination in this week’s column (which published Wednesday, Nov. 20), and that every other last thing there is to say about JFK and his murder has been said and said and said by everyone with a platform in the weeks leading up to this day, there is one thing about that event on which I have heard little. And once again, it involves a difference between young people and old people.

For more than 40 years, continuing even to this day, the right has complained it was those damn '60s that so thoroughly soured America. That it was during all those sit-ins and walk-outs, all those love-ins and drop-outs, all that flower power and turn-ons and freak-outs—and, of course, all that hair—when the whole thing broke bad. In the conservative mind, the very substance of the country was subverted by those Dr. Spock-raised brats who, rather than accepting the bullshit of Vietnam, the bullshit of segregation—the general bullshit of living drab and colorless lives as God-grazing flocksters with nothing but respect for whatever bullshit the village elders were spreading—went delinquent. Went off the reservation. Derailed the train. Broke the mold, then pissed on it.

There is a lot of truth to this. Not all of us who were doing our coming-of-age routine during that period went the rogue route, but enough of us did that nothing has ever been quite the same since.

In my sense of the last half of the 20th century, it seems obvious that at some point, young people and old people began to behave differently from one another. In the '50s and before, young people were little more than short, pimply versions of older people. Kids were still kids and grampas were still grumpy, yes, but there was always more about them that was alike than there were things that made them different. As a general rule, they dressed alike. They went to the same movies and watched the same television and danced to the same music. They looked at the same magazines and shopped at the same stores and kept the same schedules. They got the same haircuts and wore the same glasses and ate the same foods and drove the same cars and believed in the same stuff.

Exceptions can be found for every item I’ve just listed, but remember, I said “As a general rule...” I, like most of the post-war boys, saw myself as standing in the same line as my dad, only a generation back. And it was clear most post-war girls could hardly wait to be like mom. I think that’s the way it usually goes, all the way back to Neanderthal families. Unless some shock is delivered to the system, the human race is essentially a production line of the next generation stepping as smoothly as possible into the last generation’s shoes.

I repeat: Unless a shock is delivered to the system.

By 1966, it was clear there was a glitch in the production line. My parents realized something was up when I abandoned the waxy flat-top of my entire previous life and opted to go without a haircut for so long it was no longer clear I had ears. In another year, the button-down collars and corduroy slacks had been replaced by tie-died T-shirts and hand-decorated bell-bottoms. The glasses had gone from horn-rims to wire-frames

And the appearances were only the glare off the iceberg. Deeper down, less visible than the cosmetics, the very foundations were shifting. Young African-Americans would never again submit meekly to the same humiliations their forebearers had for generations. Sexual prohibitions started cracking like a plaster of Paris dam. The accumulation of wealth started mattering less than the accumulation of experience. Seekers of God discovered there were many paths to get there—some with no God at the end—and even if they stayed with the old-timey one, they started to see Christ as the King of the Hippies.

The drugs, the clothing, the music, the demonstrations, the Freedom Riders, the March to Selma and the Summer of Love—all those circumstances the Right curses, still, as the root of all current evil—all of that was just effect, not the cause.

Before that, before free love, the psychedelics, long hair, interracial mixing, draft-card burning, the riots, the tear-gassed crowds, the Cosmic Hare Krishna Transcendental breath of Zen Om and even before The Beatles, something had jerked the wheel of the great American Chevy/Ford and turned it down a road no one saw coming. Some one thing.

That’s the way I understand the murder of the man we commemorate today. The most unforeseen of events. The shock to the system that reverberates through to our present like the echoes of a cheap Italian rifle off the stony buildings in a Texas plaza.

As Faulkner said in another, but not so different, context: “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”