Walter Cronkite carved 36 seconds into the brains of millions include a nine year-old child fifty years ago today. He announced that the President was dead. He died 38 minutes earlier at 1pm Central Time, November 22nd 1963.
Everyone listening right now who was alive back then and not a toddler, every single one of you knows exactly where you were, your mind paralyzed by the news flash. Every one of you remembers how people around you, parents, grandparents, neighbours, and teachers, reacted to the news that the leader of the free world was murdered and just like 9/11, when the bastards attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, we had no idea what tomorrow would look like. November 22nd 1963. The day they ended the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
We make the public personal on this broadcast. That is our commitment to you. There is much about the personal aspect of this day that I have not wanted to talk about in 50 years. But I won’t go back on my pledge to you to make the public personal. November 22nd of 1963 was the first day my eyes saw one iron-tough woman crumple and sob like a child. She was 29 years old. And while her face was still young and vital, her heart had too much scar tissue for a 29 year-old. It would have been too much even for 89 year old. Like so many other children who survived in the ashes of World War II Europe, she suffered far too much loss. Too many members of her family were murdered for having the wrong heritage in the wrong place at the wrong time. She never knew her father, because the woman who gave birth to her, lost him while she was pregnant. He died in a small village where health care was not the best, and when he got the fever, it was over. He was in his early thirties, a tailor. The young widow my grandmother Elizabeth named her baby, my mother, Rose. Elizabeth traveled to the big city of Budapest, where she felt her baby would be safer in case she ever got the fever. Moving away from the family and friends and farm was in the young widow’s mind all about survival. But less than nine years later, the young widow was arrested by Nazis for the crime of being alive while Jewish. Her existence was seen as a threat to the state.
There was only one reason why my mother was not taken away. It was because of a handsome young man from Sweden who had the courage of a lion and managed to protect some of his cubs. He found a way to give thousands of residents of the Jewish Ghetto of Budapest Swedish passports, and that gave them protection. This Swedish Lion was adopting these unwanted, dispensable people as his cubs, and protected them as much as he could. My mother and thousands of others were afforded his Christian compassion, his generosity, courage and sacrifice. My mother was nine years old when her childhood was terminated by World War II, the Holocaust, and her separation from family members including her mother. There was only one man that stood in the way of her and a bullet or a gas chamber. His name was Raoul Wallenberg, may he rest in peace. If there is a heaven and I am permitted to spend some time there, I want to meet Mr. Wallenberg and kiss his ring and thank him for sparing Rose’s life.
Permit me to fast-forward to nineteen years later – November 22nd 1963. A 29 year-old Rose Adler, battle hardened by the life no child should ever experience, just wasn’t ready for the battle inside her brain that began the moment the assassin got inside the brain of the young President. It didn’t matter that his name was Kennedy and not Wallenberg. In my mother’s brain it was the same man. The man who rescued her and thousands of others when she was nine, the only man that stood between her and certain death, was now gone. The muzzle flash in Dallas forced her brain to feel the flash of 1944 in Budapest, when many children her age were marched to the Danube River in front of the Public Safety Building and executed. A year ago I visited that riverbank and saw the shoes. It’s a sculpture of shoes, too many shoes, made of cast iron permanently attached to the river bank as a memorial to those who were dragged down there, ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot, their bodies falling into the river to be taken away by water. No funerals. No burials. No tombstones. Forced to disappear by the darkness of the Danube. My mother knew there was only one man who stopped those forces from ordering nine year-old Rose from removing her shoes. But she knew of several others who were not as lucky as her.
Those of you listening to my voice, who have witnessed great loss, know that surviving rarely makes you feel lucky. More often than not it makes you feel guilty. Why did they take her or him and not me? My mother had survivor’s guilt. It’s never been treated and I hope if she ever hears that I said this that she will forgive me for saying, it’s never retreated. It’s the dark stranger that never goes away. And so even when good things happen, the dark stranger does not allow you to have the joy that others may experience. You have your so-called life. But you are rarely lively for more than a few seconds because when joy breaks out, the stranger breaks in.
November 22, 1963, Rose’s only child, and that would be me, is dismissed early from school. The principal tells my Grade 4 teacher that the children are to be sent home immediately and will not say why. When I climb the stairs of that firetrap we were living in, I see Rose doing something I have never seen before. Her eyes look sucked out and she is sobbing while crumpled up on the floor and I don’t what to do. I never had to comfort her before so I was ill prepared. She is the tough ass in the family. It’s never warm or fuzzy. It’s just tough. I’m utterly confused and naturally ask what’s wrong. And her voice is barely audible when she says he’s dead. They killed him. He’s dead. I don’t speculate about who the he is that she’s referring to. I assume that somebody killed my father. That somebody walked into the store and robbed him and killed him. These things do happen. My nine year-old brain is aware and I assume that I have lost my father. So I too try hard to cry. But it doesn’t come naturally. The survivors raised me not to show weakness. Crying is somewhat forbidden. I go to the only place in my head where I can find sanity, and it’s on my trusty transistor radio. I put my earpiece in and turn it on and become quickly aware that it’s NOT my father who was killed. It’s a man who my mother relates to as her father, her most important father figure. No he’s not the Swede who saved her. But in the spaces of the mind where the feelings live, where the trauma resides, these days we call it post-traumatic syndrome, in that space where the dark stranger visits frequently, that’s what happened. And after I try to talk about what I am hearing on the radio and the way I am hearing it, Rose tells me that this is the beginning of World War III. She says the Communists killed him. She’s not interested in details of who pulled the trigger. She’s got her mind made up that the war that nearly began over the Cuban missiles a year earlier has now begun. And she tells me that she was separated from her mother during the last war when she was nine. You are nine she tells me and you do not have the luxury of being a child. They don’t care, she said, about children. You do whatever you have to grow up because when they take me away I don’t know who will take care of you. Do you understand?
After November 22nd my desire to play with kids was pretty much over. I spent most of my time alone in libraries where nobody would pay attention to what I was reading. I stopped reading children’s books and focused only on history, politics, religion, ethics, law, and philosophy. I needed to know where evil came from, and how to resist it, how to protect others from evil. I needed to become useful to adults. I need to have knowledge of things that mattered and an ability to communicate the knowledge. I needed my mother to know that I could be independent as quickly as possible. There were many things I did in the weeks after November 22nd to acquire knowledge and skills, and money. Yes, I learned how to become a trader of things – comic books, ashtrays, washing machines. I would find out what people needed and I would get it for them. I was one-man flea market in the body of a child, and I learned how to be a voracious reader, a persuasive communicator an effective salesman.
There was no doubt in my nine year-old mind that some day I would be the man on the radio delivering the news and explaining it. November 22nd was the day they shot a handsome young President, made a 29 year-old mother re-experience the horrors of a not quite distant past, terminated my childhood, and set me on a path that brought me to you. For some people the most important day of their lives is December 25th. For others it is their birthdays. For me it’s November 22nd of every year. It’s a solemn occasion for me. I think about the young President, who was so brutally attacked, of his wife Jacqueline, who was on the back of that limo trying to retrieve her husband’s brain matter hoping against hope that could matter to his improbable survival. I think about the President’s young son John John saluting his dad as he lies in a casket being drawn by Six White Horses on the Streets of the Capital of the Free World and I think about my nine year-old eyes watching that funeral and vowing to God that I will never be a child again, that I will grow up and do whatever it takes to take care of my family and as many families as possible to protect them from the Assassins.
November 22, 1963 is the most important day of my life. I don’t know how many more November 22nds you and I get to share. But I will treasure each one. Thank you again for allowing my conscience to visit with yours.
I’m Charles Adler
Ladies and Gentlemen
There was a demonstration on the streets of Winnipeg. I don’t want to get into the size of it. I want to get into the message of it. One of the messages was that the people working on finding missing women in Winnipeg, specifically Tanya Nepinak, aren’t trying hard enough, aren’t working hard enough, and aren’t caring enough, because of systemic racism. Which is code for the White People don’t care about Aboriginal people, don’t care about whether they were alive or dead. And the white system is guilty, endemically, and deliberately, and systemically, because it is White. I say it in this way because that’s how feelings talk. That’s what the feeling is around those people who promote this message.
I understand where the feeling comes from. I understand what racism is. I understand what racism did to many members of my extended family, incinerated in the fires of racism. I understand why some people over the years have tried to convey the message to me that every time I have had misfortune or mishap in my life, it was because the person doing me dirt or the company doing me dirt was motivated to do so, not because of any actions I took, but because of my bloodlines. It was professional. It was racial. And I understand how hard it is for some to push back on that message and say what my feelings have said to me when someone tries that on me – “Don’t F with my feelings!” Don’t be telling me that I am less than because of heritage or that there is only so much I can achieve, only so much I can do for my family, for other families, for this community, for this country, because somehow I am tainted and branded and because the forces of darkness have conspired against so many members of my tribe, my God given potential is limited.
I don’t believe in limited Ladies and Gentlemen. I believe in unlimited. I don’t believe in those who try to bring me down by putting me down as a descendant of victims therefore permanently victimized. I don’t believe in that message because it lifts up nothing that is good in me and destroys everything that could possibly emerge from my life and my mind and my capacity to my job, not as a journalist or a broadcaster, but rather my most important job, which is to be a decent human being.
I think the victimization stigmatization business should be put out of business, not by the force of law, but by the individual will of human beings to reject it. I call on my fellow human beings every day to reject those who are trying to bring you down, and not because they don’t love you or even like you, but because they have chosen to believe a message that says you were born a victim and you will die a victim, and in between birth and death is very little except for struggle and misery and pain. Those voices say that you and your children and your children’s children will experience very little that is good, because the system is stacked against you, because the system, to the extent that they tolerate you, wants to see you fail.
This is the week that we commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of a man who made my mother cry.
On Friday I will tell you more about JFK and November 22nd and my mother. I was only 9 when I saw for her like I had never seen her before, when I saw her crumple up and sob because of this hole in her soul that seemed untreatable and incurable because of the hole that some bastard with a rifle put inside the young handsome head of somebody she believed in. On Friday I will you why she believed in him and I will tell you what else she believed and what she passed on to me on November 22nd of 1963 when I was only nine.
Today at the age of 59 I can safely and confidently tell you that you have unlimited potential regardless of the colour of your skin, or the religious heritage of your family, or the neighborhood that you come from. And anybody who tells you otherwise is doing you absolutely no good. I am not saying they want to hurt you. I am guaranteeing you that you will hurt yourself when you convince yourself that the world is out to get you, when you believe that you are the lobster in the pot that’s never getting out. I am not interested in treating you like a trapped crustacean. You’re a human being and while I cannot see you, cannot physically see you; I know that you can see me. And I know that what you see is someone who wants you to be proud and confident of whom you are.
I don’t see the colour of your skin. I imagine the colour of your character, and I imagine you to be a decent loving human being. And if I did not have the capacity to imagine it and believe it, I would be of no use to you. NONE. You don’t need one more person in your life doubting your humanity. I am not here to doubt you.
I am here to respect you and in a moment I want to introduce you to a person I respect, retired Homicide Investigator James Jewell, who has spent his entire career serving and protecting and respecting real victims of crime and of tracking down those who have committed crimes against them. I think he thinks a moral crime was committed this week when the message on the street was the system doesn’t care about the death of Tanya Nepinak because, to quote the messenger, “She was just another dead Indian”.