“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage…” and so it was, the cafeteria at my new school packed with 7th and 8th graders gathered around a tiny black and white television our neighborhood pastor loaned so we could watch the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, listening to, and watching the man elected 35th President of our United States of America take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural speech.
It was January, 1961. My family had moved in December to our new house in the northern most part of town, necessitating changing schools, making new friends, and embracing new beginnings on just about every level. I was in 8th grade, and was enjoying all aspects of our move. I loved adventures of any kind, and this whole business was exhilarating to me. It was the first time I not only realized I could determine my life and my future, but actually started planning it, with purpose.
And there was our new president, young and filled with energy and fresh ideas, taking all of us with him into the New Frontier he described in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier–the frontier of the 1960’s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled dreams….Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus…” I had watched him give that speech, and at 13, was profoundly inspired. I knew this man was different, and his words held a promise of something greater, something life changing, of which I wanted to be a part.
Just two months into his presidency, John Kennedy established the Peace Corps. Could this man have better spoken my heart during those days? He warned about the dangers of the underdeveloped world, and envisioned an army of volunteers who would go and serve shoulder to shoulder, helping build places where people could live in dignity, free from bonds of hunger, ignorance and poverty. His vision and practical approach to solving serious world issues resonated with my young teenage dreams, and I could not wait to join the ranks of the peaceful soldier.
But I had years of school ahead of me, and needed to be patient, study hard, and plan carefully to achieve the goals I was setting, all of which were in tune with the energetic, and vital image I held of the man leading my country. Then, as I moved forward, becoming more aware of how I fit into the rhythm of high school life in my little valley town, I also continued learning of events outside the security of my home, and pondered what they meant to us, if anything at all.
Two stand out early on; the Bay of Pigs incident which came and went, and I understood to be a large failure, and an embarrassment for President Kennedy. The second was when he spoke to a Joint Session of the United States Congress announcing a commitment to landing a man on the Moon, which would be a huge accomplishment for our country and for the president. Neither seemed to have a personal impact on me at the time, although they triggered a lifelong habit of reading current events from as many sources as I could. It began with two newspapers, one from San Francisco, and one a local publication; now it’s the internet, which is a news reader’s bliss.
May, 1962 brought a shocking television experience, one which, at the time, I did not fully understand, and subsequently concluded could only be attributed to exceedingly bad taste on the part of the performer. Marilyn Monroe appeared at President Kennedy’s birthday celebration, and not only seemed to be wearing a too tightly fitting sparkly gown, but sang Happy Birthday to him in a manner even a naive girl like I could not miss in its intent. Never once did it occur to me the president could have had any culpability in that gaudy performance, nor have a relationship with anyone but his wife, especially with a tacky Hollywood mess like Marilyn Monroe. I was embarrassed for him as I watched our television, and believed he handled the situation with kindness and humor toward a woman who, I felt, was not respecting herself in front of the entire country. Yes, looking back, I was very naive.
Five months later, we believed it was just another ordinary autumn. Until October, when we were informed of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and the threat they posed to the United States. A U-2 spy plane making a high altitude pass over Cuba photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium range missile being assembled for installation. That small island country is a mere 90 miles south of Florida, a launch point making targets on the east coast extremely vulnerable. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy went on television and told us about the missiles, his decision to enact a blockade to prevent any more missiles from being delivered to Cuba, and his intent to use military force, if needed, to stop the threat to our national security. That was the very first time I feared for my life, and it was a deep down, to the core of my being realization everything could be ended in the blink of an eye.
I remember how stunned we were to hear this news, and my whole family was alarmed at the prospect of the Soviets blowing us all up. My dad never spoke much about anything; he was more of a man of action. And action was what he took, immediately. The next day, he began digging our very own bomb shelter. In my parents’ bedroom closet was a trapdoor which opened to a crawl space under our house. There, with his shovel and bucket was my dad digging for all he was worth. Every night after supper, he went into that space and dug, while my mother dutifully emptied the buckets of dirt. I wondered how our family of five, plus my two grandmothers and my grandfather were all going to fit in that hole; I wondered how we would manage so many of our activities necessary to daily living when we were incased in the shelter, and I especially wondered how that little wooden trapdoor closed over all of us would protect us from radiation we heard would fall from the sky as a result of being bombed by the Soviets.
Fortunately, we never had to find out any of those answers. The Cuban missile crisis ended well for everyone, and both our country and the Soviets learned from the experience. The USSR took its missiles out of Cuba, and we removed our missile installations from Turkey. There was a direct hot line communication link installed between Washington and Moscow, and two treaties related to nuclear weapons were signed. On the home front, my family did not have to go live underground in the biggest hole I ever saw any one man dig with a shovel, and at school, we no longer were required to practice diving under our classroom desks for protection if the bomb had fallen while we were there. As I think back, I realize naiveté was not exclusive to just the children of the time.
We did not spend all our days worrying about bombs and missiles; we were focused on fitness. President Kennedy was committed to physical fitness for our country even before he took the oath of office. After becoming president, he reorganized the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, renamed it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and established a physical fitness program in schools, including awards for achievement. The training and testing were grueling, and one really had to want it to succeed. What was it? It was pride of actually completing the test, all components having time limits, and extreme physical demands; and once completed successfully, a patch was awarded that displayed a gold eagle on a blue background, with the words Presidential Physical Fitness Award, which was placed permanently on the gym shirt pocket. I received that award, and wore it throughout my high school years, believing I had made my president proud. I wish to this day I had kept it, and look back on that accomplishment and patch as something I truly earned, and felt honored to have received.
The early days of 1963 blended together in a kaleidoscopic pattern of artistic, social and spiritual growth. They were filled with friendships I cherished then, and still do today; activities drawn from and encouraged by a grandmother whose creative genius was unlimited, and an awakening to that spiritual part of my being. There were issues shaking the country to its core; civil rights marching to the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, our military being sent to assist a small country named Viet Nam resist the spread of Communism, a divided Berlin in Germany. I read about these daily, and yet had an abiding sense of peace. In my eyes, John Kennedy was the man in charge, and so far we all still were safe and protected. I was happy. And grateful.
Then, on Friday, November 22, I was sitting in my American History class, listening to my teacher, who for all his bravado, strutting around the classroom in a yellow alpaca sweater with sleeves pushed up, still looked more like a tiny, balding leprechaun than an esteemed history teacher. In the middle of a sentence, our girls’ guidance counselor barged into the room, bent over and whispered in the ear of my tiny, balding leprechaun teacher. I remember smiling at the contrast between the two; she was tall and dignified, very professional, and he was just a small man who acted like he was a very big man. She stood tall again, turned and left. We all were curious, and waited for some explanation or for the lecture to resume. He just stared at us for the longest time. Then, in a shaky voice, my American History teacher told us President Kennedy had been shot, and school was dismissed. Buses were on the way, and we were to go home. That was it.
I walked by our Principal’s office as I hurried to catch my bus, and in the window, where a small black and white television had been placed, Walter Cronkite was communicating the latest news about our president. I stopped and listened as he announced it was official. President Kennedy was dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas.
That afternoon, my best friend and I had no idea how to deal with the magnitude of what had happened. Her mother worked, mine did not want to discuss it. So, she and I walked to our local shopping center, and drifted from store to store, numbly looking at items we neither wanted nor had the money to purchase, anyway. We simply did not know what to do, other than cling to each other, emotionally, and walk through the experience together doing the best we 16 year olds could to figure this out on our own. Mostly, we just repeated over and over a simple question; how could this happen? We did not have, nor could we find an answer.
Time continued passing regardless of our individual and collective national pain. We watched the funeral, three year old John Kennedy Jr saluting his dad’s coffin as it rolled past him, our hearts grieved and wrenched as we followed the eight block walk of mourners behind the cortege from the White House to St Matthews Cathedral; we angrily watched Lee Harvey Oswald tell the nation he was a patsy, and then, as though we had not been brutalized enough, watched in horror as he was shot by Jack Ruby. Those days played out before us as we observed and participated via television, in shock and disbelief. How does one assimilate such mayhem, such tragedy?
It was fifty-six years ago today that he was taken from us. After all this time, I can say it has gone by in a blink, and even so, there has been no closure. Not for me, anyway. I have read book after book on the assassination, investigations, conspiracy theories, surviving family members, his life, presidency, legacy. And yet, he remains my first true inspiration, the reason I believed in service and commitment to causes greater than myself. I never have been able to give up the idealism he instilled in me, and I do not think that makes me foolish; I believe it has made me resolute, still baffled why it all happened, but determined to maintain the vigil, and never, never lose hope.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president of the United States for 1,036 days. In that time, and to the end, he exemplified and exceeded all that he spoke, which rang true and sure to a girl coming of age; one who believed in the New Frontier, and its possibility and promise. So, all these days later, I recall President Kennedy saying, “There is, in addition to a courage with which men die; a courage by which men must live.” It is a choice we make, that of exercising courage; but, when we have had an example set before us, an example of one who made the ultimate sacrifice, it seems the least we can do. For each day since, and each day forward, ours is but a reflection of his, and we choose to live that profile of courage.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)