For so many people now, the answer to this is, as my grandma used to say, “Why, I wasn’t even a gleam in my daddy’s eye.”
But I remember, I remember.
I was in Bar La Querce, just down the street in Florence from the villa where a bunch of fellow students and I were doing our “year abroad”. It was evening for us. We were drinking wine—ah, to be 19 and able to order wine—and arguing about the virtues of American vs. Italian “rock and roll” with a group of Italian students. And British—the Beatles were first hitting; they hadn’t really made it to consciousness in America yet, but everyone knew them in Italy.
A man rushed in, shouting “Kennedy has been shot”-- in Italian of course. We’d only been in Italy a couple of months; our spoken Italian was rusty. But we were reading a novel in Italian class about soldiers in WWII, and we knew the word “shot.” We simply didn’t believe it. I remember a friend trying to look up the word in his dictionary, there at the table, trying to find some other meaning.
The TV went on, and if only from the pictures, we knew. We stuttered in our flimsy Italian, trying to express in an unfamiliar language the unthinkable. At one point, I was trying to say: “He must only be wounded.” It came out, “He must just be castrated.” The Italians were gentle with me.
Later that night, someone took pot-shots at the Villa and we huddled inside with the shutters closed. We never knew why: most Italians loved Kennedy, the first Catholic president. His picture was often next to the Pope’s in Italian homes we visited.
We learned a lot of spoken Italian in the next few days. Italian television dubbed all the broadcasts from the US—this was long before satellite TV beamed the world live—and I watched Johnson take the oath of office in Italian.
Despite the pot-shots, the outpouring of sympathy from the Italians was amazing and full. There was a Requiem Mass in the Duomo, a huge cathedral full to bursting with sorrowing people of all nationalities. That Winter Break, I went with an Italian student group on a tour of Eastern Europe and Russia. When anyone found out some of us were Americans, people gathered around and offered condolences. There may have been an Iron Curtain, a Cold War, politically, but on the human level we were welcomed, respected as bereaved, consoled, connected.