The Memory of a Little Boy

By Russell Shorto

I “remember” very well where I was when JFK was assassinated. The quotation marks, of course, mean that I have no idea whether it is in fact a memory or an image that my mind created after the fact. I was with my mother shopping in the local department store in Pennsylvania.

We had just walked into the store (or were we on the way out?), and were standing in the vestibule when an announcement came over the store’s speakers. I was four years old; the announcement was meaningless jabber to me. But my mother and all the other shoppers stopped, gasped, were looking around as if for explanation or something to hold onto. Alarmingly, some of them burst out crying. And the little touch that provides an almost too-perfect metaphor: I was holding a helium balloon, which, in my confusion, I let go of. It floated up toward the distant ceiling. And then I too gasped in sadness, having lost something precious.
Russell Shorto writes books of narrative history. His book “Amsterdam: a History of the World’s Most Liberal City” has just been published. He is also a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and was director of the John Adams Institute from 2008 to 2013.