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Where were you… 1963 1965 1977 2001 2003 … fifty years on.

_DSC8168 copy10th Anniversary 2011, spotlights represent the fallen towers

In a ‘roundabout way I will meander and recall the Kennedy assassination of 1963. It will be soon fifty years ago. When did I get so old?


The first NYC blackout was when I was a kid living in Astoria Queens around 1966. I was late getting home. As I walked up my block in the evening twilight, the streetlights raced me home each one extinguishing its fluorescent glow (not halogen yet). I thought it was a neat trick arranged by someone for my benefit. I only then began to realize NYC was in a full blackout. That night my father never got home. He was stuck commuting and the power was never restored to the subway.

The next blackout occurred in 1977. I was a newly employed first year resident in neurosurgery at NYU. I had just finished my internship year at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which pointedly stated that my internship was from Bronx Municipal Hospital. So what? I was on a date in a restaurant with one of the nurses from the hospital. The lights went out and we drove from Manhattan to the Bronx (she lived there) to an empty parking lot to make out. That didn’t go far because in the entirety of the empty lot a cop came by to shine his spotlight into the window and chase us away. I thought about going to Bellevue Hospital that night to check on things, but I never went. The next morning I found that people had been there all night ventilating patients by hand because the mechanical ventilators had no electricity. I should have been there. It was after this incident that all hospitals put in emergency generator systems for such a recurrence. And folks in NYC knew immediately there was opportunity in chaos. Widespread looting began immediately after the lights went out.

In 2003 I was operating at Victory Memorial Hospital doing a complex spine fusion operation. In my career a recurring nightmare was to have the operating microscope light bulb burn out during a critical part of a very delicate brain surgery just as major bleeding erupted. That day all the lights went out. Without a window in the OR room, it was immediately completely pitch black. After a few seconds the emergency generator kicked in and all was back to normal. Except that the entire city and east coast were in complete blackout. Cable TV showed the news and I didn’t put together that the hospital had power because of its generator. Duh!? We had lights and cable TV because of the blackout generators! Leaving for home I quickly realized that none of the traffic lights were working. For the first time I used my MD license plates to get into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and claimed I was on the way to the hospital. I’d have been better off bunking in the hospital in Brooklyn. The twilight became dark of the night and the evening commute was nearly six hours (ordinarily 30 min). Gridlock was a true nightmare. Cellphones were dead because there were no emergency generators. People lined up 10 deep to get at a pay phone. (Hardline phones work in a blackout.) Ice cream bars ($4) were selling for $1 because they were melting. I’m used to being on-call and dialing a phone at night without light. I called from home via hard line to my wife (on Long Island) by blind touch and she answered that she and the kids were safe and on candlepower. Police presence was massive and looting was minimal.

This brings me around to 1963 and to the fateful event of November’s assassination. The NY Times reported that it’s now fifty years in a retrospective article about the city Dallas and what has changed there. Many of the principal people of that day are now dead… Jackie, John Jr, Lyndon…. There will be no Kennedy name from Jack’s lineage to carry his name forward. Caroline’s children will be his descendants. I suppose one can say the same about Lincoln.

I was in the seventh grade at Elkins Junior High, West Virginia. It was the end of the school day. We were in some sort of after school sports activity and the news came that the ‘Chief Executive’ was dead. This was then translated for me that the ‘President’ had been shot and killed. In my naïve grasp at hope and with complete disbelief I tried to separate the notion that the titles were not one and the same. Of course I was wrong. Others who are of another generation and younger will remember … when the shuttle exploded or some other defining events. But for my generation it was, “Where were you when Kennedy died?” I remember my mother crying as she watched the funeral on our black and white TV.

I visited Dallas for a national meeting many years later and heard the story of that day concerning the neurosurgeons on duty at Parkland Hospital. It is a trauma receiving hospital and as usual was very busy that day in the afternoon. Kennedy was brought into the ER and the neurosurgeon with a glance immediately knew Kennedy had suffered a fatal gunshot. He just didn’t realize who the victim was. As the surgeon turned away to attend another patient, he was forced to pay attention by a gun pointed into his face by a secret service agent who told him to try harder.

After that event, I often think about things in historical perspective. I would often ask young people, “Do you remember when there were four Beatles?” And to be sure I would get in reply, “Who were the Beatles?” Even the shuttle explosion did not impact on me as much as Kennedy and 9/11. But the younger generation seems to remember the shuttle vividly.

I suppose the date (my parents) the previous generation remembers is December 7. A mere mention of the date December 7 and it evokes memories. I grew up and America paused on every December 7. It just seems more personal when the event or date in question happened when you were around.

9/11 was significant for me because I saw the buildings on fire and eventually collapse from my apartment window and roof, which looks south in Manhattan. When the buildings fell, I still believed that they would emerge from the smoke. Something so large could not possibly collapse completely in a pile of ruin. My disbelief of so massive event continued for hours as I kept checking and kept expecting to see the towers appear when the smoke cleared.

It was the date of my wedding anniversary. Everyone in my family was separated that day. My daughter was on a school trip and never came home that night. My son came home with stranded school buddies in tow.

My wife Lisa, who is a nurse, immediately rushed downtown to volunteer her services to aid casualties. She managed to get from the WTC site to Liberty Park, NJ where it was said they were receiving injured. Lisa and another nurse from Philadelphia were together in the only car in the Holland Tunnel allowed across the Hudson River at that moment. The eerie thing is that there were really no casualties after the initial injuries were brought into the ER’s.2857 34 Lisa rescue gear copy

Eventually a few days later my wife did get to the site across the street from the ruins to aid and to help set up the aid station for rescue workers. She ran around the back of Stuyvesant High School. She leapt from the pier onto a departing tugboat carrying other aid workers. Lisa is not particularly athletic and my imagination of her ‘leaping’ recalls some classic movie scenes. But it was this act (dangerous for her) that somehow made me understand how profoundly she had been affected by 9/11 as well as myself.

I have posted an anniversary 9/11 memory each year for this blog. I have watched the neighborhood slowly recover and the new tower has reached its height and prominence in the skyline. The old towers still appear in movies and soon the new tower will be part of the NYC scene. The memorial fountain is open and they still read the names of the dead on 9/11. I still feel profound loss. Surely 10 years didn’t already pass in a blink.

And, so many years later there is still an empty feeling for me about the Kennedy assassination. I have recently read about Jackie’s pink outfit that day. It has been preserved with its blood stains and may be examined by historians in about 100 years. Her memoirs are similarly sealed for nearly 100 more years. I will not be here when that time comes. It’s hard to imagine what new information can come to light. Conspiracy theories aside, the truth will probably never be known. Lee Harvey Oswald died too soon to tell us anything. And soon anyone who might have vital information will have died. It’s too bad there will probably be no closure on the Kennedy assassination. Though we still war with Al Qaeda, I think that there was some closure in Osama bin Laden’s death. When I pass the new World Trade Center Tower recently completed to the height of 1776 feet, I have a feeling of hope. Kennedy, too, died too soon to really have a true impact on history. The legislation that passed after he died changed everything. His enthusiasm exhorted us to land on the moon. It was his promise and hope with which I remember… “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”_DSC8272 copy10th Anniversary, special lighting during construction

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