I really hadn’t thought about it in years. You get caught up with family, earning your keep, trying to get by each day, living…….you sometimes lose perspective of the bigger picture. The recent wave of news coverage made it all come back, rolling over me as if the fifty years had been a few days. And I wasn’t especially enamored with John F. Kennedy.
Of course, at sixteen, if he didn’t play football with us, live out on our end of Stonewall Street or have a “presentable” sister that was of a dateable age, we weren’t paying much attention. The biggest thing I remember as he was campaigning for the presidency was his religion. I don’t reckon any of us had ever seen a Catholic. Seems silly now; but I remember more debates around town about his religion than taxes, foreign policy or who his vice- president might be. Some up at the City Café believed the Pope would be running the country if JFK was elected. The recent flashbacks to the Kennedy era and his brief time as president didn’t dwell on how divided the south was over this issue. Maybe that is just as well. And it turned out to be a moot point. That, I think, is an oft missed quality of the man.
The regulars at the Café also allowed that the Kennedys were rich beyond belief and they were simply trying to buy the office. That was another hot “talking point” of the political season. But shucks, that didn’t sway us much either way. Back then we measured a man by his works, not his bank account. Being from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, would normally have worked against him, but his opponent was from California……so that was about a wash!
We did watch in 1960 the much ballyhooed national televised debates between the aspiring candidates. They were in black and white. I don’t remember any of the questions. Nor do I remember one answer. It was pretty grainy on our small TV. Buddy, at school on Monday, did point out that Richard Nixon looked like a crook as he kept cutting his eyes over at Kennedy.
I do remember being impressed with the “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your county” line in his inaugural speech. That was the first statement from a president that I ever rolled over in my young mind. It was a pretty good one to start with……
We all noted the difference between the popular, but aging Ike, and the youthful and energetic Kennedy. We weren’t sure where the New Frontier was going to take us but we all realized here was truly a changing of the guard.
I don’t think I’d even heard of Vietnam when Kennedy was elected. I certainly didn’t understand the confusion and embarrassment over the Bay of Pigs fiasco which occurred early in his watch. I never thought about joining the Peace Corps which he promoted tirelessly. And the construction of the Berlin Wall seemed like a crazy side show of the Cold War to us.
To be brutally honest here, I was more impressed with my new driver’s license and the freedom it afforded me, than the rights of East Berliners that I didn’t know. I didn’t keep up with who JFK appointed as Secretary of State or Attorney General. We were more into how to beat Huntingdon on Friday night than what movie stars were dropping in on the Kennedys or what dress Jackie was wearing to the latest state dinner.
We did hold our breaths, and then cheer, as our President backed down the Castro government, and to a much larger extent, the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile crisis. That was a close one! We cheered again when Kennedy stood by the Brandenburg Gate in the summer of 1963 and invited any in the world who thought they could work with the communists, “Let them come to Berlin”. Wow, not bad for a guy who Nixon had repeatedly warned us was weak on international affairs!
I was sitting with John Ingram and Larry Ridinger in study hall up on the third floor of the old high school. Coach Smith came on the loud speaker, “I have something serious to tell you.” He had our immediate attention because he didn’t blow into the microphone and say “can I have your attention, can I have your attention” like he normally did. “I don’t want anyone to panic. The President of the United States has just been shot in Dallas.”
Stunned wasn’t the word as we looked at each other. Neither was disbelief or astonishment. It simply couldn’t have happened! No way on earth! As we raced toward the TV in the auditorium people were stone silent. And many were crying; including Walter Cronkite when he gave us the definitive news.
I don’t know about Camelot, nirvana, Shangri-la……but I can tell you, it had been a pretty good time to be an American!
The change wasn’t immediate; or perceptible at the moment. But it came. The sadness of the event still lingers. The confusion of the Warren Report and a hundred conspiracy theories and the political and social unrest of what was left of the sixties are still being felt to this day.
We lost our innocence.
I watched and read very little of the recent coverage of that fateful day. I lived through it once. That was enough!