SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Put quite simply, it was our generations John F. Kennedy. Our parents have always told us that they remember exactly where they were when they heard the news that JFK was killed. To our grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor, the memory of which we honor today. For those of us born around 1960, there were two of these moments, only a few years apart. One of course, was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, but the true defining moment was thirty one years ago, as we first began to hear the news that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside the Dakota in New York City.
Where were you? I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was a junior at Rutgers College, in New Jersey, and had moved just a couple months earlier to my first off campus apartment in New Brunswick. We had a couple of friends over, and were playing guitar in the living room. Unlike most, we weren’t football fans, so we weren’t watching when Howard Cosell broke the news in the middle of the Monday Night Football game. Instead, for some reason, the news was on the TV, with the sound off, while we all hung out jamming on our guitars.
At around 11:00 a special report came on the television, with Lennon in the upper right hand corner. At that time, we didn’t know what was up so we ignored it and went on with our playing, until the kids living on the first floor came upstairs and asked why were were still going about our night as though nothing had ever happened. We didn’t believe what we were hearing at first, but turning up the sound it quickly began to sink in. We were stunned to say the least. All up and down the road, students found their way out into the street over the course of the next hour. Some were in pajamas and although it was a cold night, few seemed to notice. We grabbed blankets and stood in the street covered in our bedding. Somehow we all instinctively gravitated to the Rutgers Student Center on College Ave. Nobody is quite sure why, but we felt that we needed to be together. By 2AM there were thousands of kids in the streets of the college. We weren’t really “talking” because really were in what we now realize intellectually was a state of shock. The campus police eventually showed up, but ironically many of them were crying as well, and rather than getting us to disperse they seemed to just mix into the crowd and join with us. Inevitably the music came on. In some corners, it was kids like me still carrying our guitars, and singing along to Beatles songs. In other groups, it was a radio playing a seemingly endless loop of “Give Peace a Chance.” Everywhere, there were candles. Not sure where all got them, but there were candles galore. That seems like a totally normal thing to most of you today, but back then we’d never heard of having anything like a candle light vigil before.
The next day, the bulk of our classes were cancelled, as our professors, T.A.’s and everyone else was impacted just as we were. and frankly, nobody was in the mood for Chemistry class. Many of us felt the need to make the pilgrimage to the Dakota, and as the train station was right near the campus, it was a simple matter to hop on the train to New York, something we did often, and hike the two miles uptown from Penn Station, but there was no way to get anywhere near the place. The school had announced that there was going to be a more organized candle light vigil that next night, and so we all got back to campus, grabbed some blankets and candles and headed back out to the streets, seemingly oblivious to the cold.
Much like the Kennedy assassination, which is recounted by our parents, not as a moment, but as a week of events, we went through the same process. Nearly a week later, on Saturday, the world joined together to observe 10 minutes of silence at noon, including an assemblage of a quarter of a million people in Central Park, across the street from the Dakota. It was considered at the time as the largest group to assemble since Woodstock. As the moments approached you could feel the tension in the air. The radios had been playing Lennon songs for days, but when the time arrived the airwaves went completely dead. Thousands of us were together, but you could hear a pin drop. For that ten minutes, we looked at each other, and our eyes spoke volumes, but not a single sound was uttered. Nobody would be the one to break the silence.
As we reached the end, church bells all around us began to toll in unison and we all just lost it. Falling into each others arms, we stood there for what seemed like forever singing, chatting, and somehow realizing that things would never the the same. Over the course of the next few weeks, things obviously returned to a sense of normalcy, and we began to fall into our regular routine.
Just three months later, most of us were in those very same apartments when Ronald Reagan was shot. Somehow it didn’t hit us as hard because was now knew that the world was now a horrible place where people killed each other for no reason. Yes we were willing to follow John’s advice, and Give Peace a Chance, but we have never, as a generation, trusted the world again as we did in the times before December 8th. We had, forever, lost any innocence we possessed, and were changed forever. To this day, whenever I’m in New York City I always go back to the Dakota, and sit in the little place in the park across from it called Strawberry Fields. Ironically, among the dozens of people we see there placing flowers on the mosaic, there are few that were even alive back then. Somehow the love of John and his music, has transcended to a new generation of people, and ultimately that’s just what John would have wanted.
Give Peace a Chance