Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Pillow Fight

I recently finished "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell which is a book about her road trips to the sights associated with the first three American presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley if you don't remember (I sure didn't). Funny and fascinating, Sarah Vowell brings her inimitable voice to American history that is a joy for people like me who enjoy American history and, at the very least, a good read for those who don't really give a rip about it. Wonderful book; go pick it up.

But the book itself isn't what I wanted to write about. It is one particular paragraph towards the end that talks about how most famous American victims of assassination had a good day the day that they were killed (excepting JFK). She mentions that Booth timed his shot so that it would coincide with a funny line in the play. Lincoln's last conscious thought was a laugh. Bobby Kennedy spent the day at the beach in Malibu with his family at the home of the director of The Manchurian Candidate. McKinley spent the day sightseeing with his wife at Niagra Falls.

The one that got to me though was Martin Luther King Jr. The very day MLK Jr. was shot he and his brother and some of their friends had gotten into a pillow fight in the Lorraine Motel. When I read this line I pictured the scene exactly the way Sarah Vowell said she always pictures it: black and white, slow-motion, handsome men in shirts and ties laughing and enjoying life. Something about this is so achingly simple and beautiful while at the same time gut-wrenchingly sad. A regular guy blowing off steam from what must have felt like the true weight of the world on his shoulders only to be gunned down a short while later. The image of these men and this pillow fight actually brought tears to my eyes. I don't know why this moved me so much.

History tends to deify the assassinated and dehumanize them at the same time. After awhile you only think of the powerful speeches or their place in the broader scope of history. We tend to forget about the real people beyond the mythologized personalities. This paragraph broke down that myth for a brief moment.

I don't know if I will ever be able to think of Martin Luther King, Jr. again without this image coming to mind. I kind of like that.

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