NOVEMBER 24, 2010 4:36PM

The Striped Coffin: My Earliest Memory

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JFK funeral procession on TV

A reconstructed scene: 47 years ago tomorrow I stood before my parents' TV set, nose practically pressed against the tube, with the rapt attention a two-and-a-half year old toddler gives to the demonstration of a new pull toy. I say reconstructed because I have no memory of the event itself, of the scene in our living room. I can't recall who was sitting on the couch behind me, or what the color of the sky was through the living room windows. All I remember is that flickering television screen, its dull gold plastic frame at the periphery of my vision, and the slowly moving object in its center: a black-and-white striped box on wagon wheels, pulled by horses.

My memory, to paraphrase journalist/photographer/blogger Ken Steinhoff  (who photographed the image above on his parents' TV set on that very day), is a funny thing. It flows backwards in a mostly uninterrupted stream through the vast hazy fields of elation and regret until it vanishes into the thickets of earliest childhood. When it surfaces again what I see is something very close to Ken's picture: a composition of stripes, wheels, shadows. A moment of crystal immediacy, seen through thick curved glass, before it is smothered in layers of manufactured, mediated, meaning. The echoing clop of the hoofbeats, the mournful drum-and-brass band, the voiceover with the flat, somber Midwestern  cadence shared by all (white, male, somber) news reporters of the day. The camera pulls back and I see the stunned gray crowds mourning their President.

And if I'm to believe what I see on television these days, Don Draper was at that moment sitting in his Manhattan corner office, just a few miles south of our Bronx apartment, swilling a scotch on the rocks and pondering the state of the nation (the offices of Sterling Cooper would otherwise have been unoccupied as it was a national day of mourning, but, well, we know what a workaholic Don was). One of the reasons I'm obsessed with Mad Men is the weird cognitive dissonance I experience while watching it: knowing I was already alive somewhere that strange world of early sixties America, so foreign in its ways and yet so intimately familiar. And, as a brand man I can relate to (m)ad man Don Draper's examination of his own cognitive dissonance, how he reacts to what he wants but cannot truly have, and how he tries to understands the ways that dissonance lies at the heart of American joy and misery.

I've made a habit of tweaking my own dissonance. I indulge in the disjointed cultural fragments of that transitional era: through music, from fizzy early Beatles to smoking Coltrane. Through cinema—from grainy Cassavetes to Technicolor Blake Edwards. And of course, through books and magazines: from the mellow delights of old Playboys to the fragile carboard pages of family albums. Yet compared to that visceral earliest memory, it's all hiss and pop, scratched and torn surfaces. Compelling in its artfulness, laden with zeitgeist. 

I like to think that my ongoing fascination with the increasing immediacy of  image, brand and icon—of electronic media—has something to do with that striped box. I like to think that before the waves of meaning crash and close our heads, before the millions of dollars spent by all the various unnamed vested interests work their magic on our impulses, thoughts and fears, there is a moment of crystal clarity for each of us, wherein we experience a given event on our own terms. That moment is elusive, for there isn't enough time to attach an unadulterated thought to it—but it's real, and underneath it all, it's forever.

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Photo by Ken Steinhoff. Read his reminiscences (and see his striking photographs) of Cape Central High in Cape Girardeau, MO in the days of the JFK assassination.

 

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There's a philosophy in your last paragraph well worth attending to, something about the threatened dissolution of well-chamfered sensibilities, about the embodied connection between the sensory and consciousness, and about the danger of novelty substituting for insight. What a fine post, Marco: thoughtful, knowing.
"I like to think that before the waves of meaning crash and close our heads, before the millions of dollars spent by all the various unnamed vested interests work their magic on our impulses, thoughts and fears, there is a moment of crystal clarity for each of us, to experience a given event on our own terms. That moment is elusive, for there is no time to attach an unadulterated thought to it—but it's real, and underneath it all, it's forever."

I hope I can write with such fluidity of meaning and brilliance...maybe someday. I love the era you have pulled me back to, and I love this piece you've shared. I'm so happy to see you on OS again Marco...
Thanks for the kind words, Jerry. Gary, Padraig: it's good to be back. Let's see how long I can keep this up now! My life's a bit more complex now than when I used to post regularly in late '08/early '09. But Tweeting a bit recently has mad me realize how much I miss being able to express myself in long form (i.e. more than 140 characters!!) As for fluidity... I dunno, Gary. Your stuff reads beautifully. And I actually felt compelled to go back in and tweak some of the language of this post a bit, for added clarity and flow, I guess. Hope I haven't messed with whatever you guys liked in the first place...
Wonderful essay, Marco. I was 7 in 1963, and remember being glued to the TV the same way. The clip-clop of the horses' feet...

I've fallen out of love with Mad Men (aka Sad Men ;). Hard to watch the powerful moments of that decade get flattened (trivialized?) to fit such a cynical frame. Much as the writers get the details right, they're still seeing the era from a distance; reducing it to something that feels a lot more like today.

Anyway, welcome back! You've inspired the longest comment I've written in months, maybe it's time to post again, too ;)
Hi Donna! I figure I'll be a Mad Men fan until they start trafficking in too many clichéd character types for laughs.... Miss Blankenship came very close, but she had great lines so I've forgiven that one. The show does keeps a very tight focus on a certain sector: postwar professionals in the image and desire game on a collision course with the very different expectations and attitudes of the Boomer generation. I realized after the second season they weren't going to show a very glamorous or colorful panorama of the times, though there are occasional glimpses, usually when Don is away from New York: the West Coast, the trip to Rome wit Betty. But as they head into Viet Nam I feel I'm going to like the show less for leaving the less explored era. Looking forward to any new posts of yours!