Kennedy Summers

July 22, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: When John Kennedy, Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren were lost in a plane crash, television covered the event from the appropriate places.

CORRESPONDENT: There’s a surreal atmosphere –

ROGER ROSENBLATT: One saw reporters standing in front of gray and white summer houses with weathered shingles on Martha’s Vineyard and Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. There were scenes of Coast Guard ships foaming up the water in search of the missing plane, and shots of recreational vessels– power boats, fishing boats, sailboats– cutting white roads into the sea. There were scenes of beaches, sand dunes, docks, starry, starry nights.

All of summer was in mid-July bloom in the background, while in the foreground, one contemplated the Kennedys in grief once again. It might have seemed that grief is their season; they have known it so often. But, in fact, summer is the Kennedy family season. And when one of them dies in summer, something happens to summer itself. It grows dim. A time of action and celebration grows uncelebrative and still. This has happened to American summers before in recent memory. Three years ago to the day that John Kennedy’s plane went down, TWA Flight 800 crashed into the ocean off East Moriches on Long Island’s South shore, and all at once that summer went away. (Taps)

One saw the ocean differently. As happened with the Kennedy crash, the Atlantic suddenly didn’t look so bright and playful anymore; it became what the ocean often is, a pitiless, dangerous place. One discovered sadness in it.

When Flight 800 went down, people in that area of Long Island refused to go in swimming for days, out of respect for the dead. One saw beaches differently as well. No long strips of sandboxes, they became the repositories of the remains of a disaster, a place to view small fragments of fellow human beings washed up in evidence of lives that had been vital a short while before.

This, too, is what one saw after the Kennedy crash– people coming off the beaches as if they had emerged from police stations, having identified exhibits of evidence on a table. The playfulness, the bounce, the light and freedom of the season vanished in a shot three years ago. It did so again this summer and with a special sort of pain and sorrow, because one was reminded that the Kennedys took to summer especially well. They liked summer, thrived in summer. So many images one has of them are summer images: Jack Kennedy walking on a beach; Caroline and John, Jr. holding hands on the beach. Play in the water. Life on a sailboat. Open, breezy, good things ahead.

Summer has darkened this year because it darkened for the summer family, who, whatever one’s politics or personal feelings about them, have become everyone’s family in the summertime. America itself came to life in the summer, in July. We, too, take to the season in which we believe, perhaps are lulled into believing, that what is good in life and hopeful and bright as sunrise on the water will go on forever. It doesn’t.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.