Every generation seems to have one: that traumatic frozen moment of shock and disbelief that is branded into their age group’s collective unconscious. For my father’s generation, the moment came on December 7, 1941. For millions my age, John Lennon’s murder in Manhattan on December 8, 1980 became ours.
The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center were truly “generational moments” that brought about policy change at the national level and sent previous eras scrambling for sanctuary in the history books. The death of John Lennon was different. Despite worldwide calls for peace, there was no overnight institutional change that stopped murders from happening in New York. His death was more personal, affecting millions who had grown up with the Beatles, and those who looked on him as a brother from a different mother.
I remember the moment well. I had only recently arrived in California from Indiana, having migrated west to study at a college that specialized in its own brand of old-time religion. I wasn’t much of a believer, and had used my mother’s religion to get out of the Midwest. Soon, the inherent need inside all of us to have friends and to fit in to one’s surroundings was causing me to – outwardly at least – parrot the party line.
The news about John’s murder was delivered to me by a Scandinavian student. I didn’t believe him at first, but others who had heard the reports confirmed the story. My response was to knock out every tooth in the Swede’s head. This wasn’t a reaction bred by the violence that had just happened on the opposite side of the country. It was because the student, who knew of my interest in the satanic symphony of rock and roll in general – and the Beatles in particular – had rushed to give me the news with such self-righteous glee. In his skewed worldview, the Devil had simply called one of his own home.
I made up the part about knocking out the kid’s teeth. I only did that mentally. My restraint had nothing to do with “turning the other cheek” or “giving peace a chance.” It was shock and the fear of expulsion that kept my reaction in check.
While I would like to say that his view was that of an extremist and not the prevailing sentiment of the college, this was not the case. Those of us who were fans had to grieve alone, far from the all-seeing eye of the faculty.
It was only later that I realized that his appalling need to joyfully rush to report that a man had been murdered in front of his wife led me to take my first step away from organized religion. I’ve been walking ever since.
A lot can change in a single moment.