November 22, 1963
This was very hard to write.
I thought about remembering this day 50 years ago at the end of October when I was first researching subjects to blog on during November. Of course, everyone who was alive then, and quite a few who were not, are also writing about it, thinking about it, remembering. I hope I can record one thing that doesn’t echo a million other memories, and I hope my readers will forgive me if I don’t.
It’s fifty years after an event that changed how I looked at life. I was 14, in junior high school. The thing I remember most about that day is that it was the very first time I ever saw an adult – many adults – cry. They were weeping everywhere. The teachers in the hallways, the sisters at the retreat house where I was a Friday night volunteer, my parents. Walter Cronkite. All of them weeping. I intellectualized the enormity of the event, but even today, I do not understand why they were all crying.
I grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. One of my town’s claims to fame was (is) its Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. When I was growing up, our parade was second in size only to the one in New York City. JFK often marched in the parade. I remember he radiated personality and friendliness along the route. He smiled at the kids, shook hands, looked handsome and Presidential, even before he ever thought of running (I think). These are a child’s memories, remember.
In 1960 one of my parents supported Nixon and the other JFK. Nullified one another. They both became great Kennedy fans in the ensuing years. I got to meet Richard Nixon in August of 1960 at Newark Airport. I was 11; my dad was 44 when he took me there in response to widespread publicity about the Veep visit. Security was not what is now. The then-vice president and his daughters arrived in Newark for some reason. We shook his hand. I don’t remember if we met the girls.
The election was close, but I don’t remember that. I remember the inauguration. I remember Robert Frost fumbling with his poems in the numbing cold. I’ve never figured out whether “The Gift Outright” was what he was supposed to recite, or something else. A fitting tribute at such a momentous changing of the guard. Almost 12 years old, maybe somewhat precocious, watching on our almost new television, listening to the challenge of JFK’s only inaugural. When I looked at it again today, I found the meat, the foundation, and it’s not the “ask not” part, it’s the exhortation to the new generation of Americans: “—born in this [twentieth] century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed.”
I have read this over and over and over today. “Unwilling to . . . permit the . . . undoing of . . . human rights. . .” What has happened to us in the last 50 years? The new generation has come to separate one people from another, to behave hatefully towards one another and instead of moving forward, to gridlock everything into a fetid stagnation. Where is the optimism of 1961? How does our present behavior honor the memory of JFK?
We sat in front of the television 50 years ago for four solid days. We watched endless analysis and replays of what video they had. We listened to the news people, the important people, the common people, express their opinions, their condolences, their disbelief, their loss of belief. I think my Dad lost his first and for all as we watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on Sunday. On Monday, they buried him. His son’s 3rd birthday. Poignant memory when looking at the pictures today. Of all of the people in those pictures: Jackie Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Caroline – only Caroline is still alive. How star-crossed could a family be?
I still have the newspaper. Every year, I think about this event. Every day I look around me at the kinds of extreme “security” we have. It all started here. Thank you, Lee Harvey Oswald, for making our country so much less safe. Because that’s really what happened. We became afraid. We remain afraid. What happened to the new generation that we allowed our civil and human rights to become so eroded?
What happened that we’ve been fated to see too many more weeping adults since November 22, 1963. February 21, 1965 (Malcolm X killed), April 4, 1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. killed), June 5, 1968 (Bobby Kennedy killed), December 8, 1980 (John Lennon killed), March 30, 1981 (attempted murder of Ronald Reagan), the parents of every child killed in some corner of the world far from home and family, far from country, preserving human rights (in name only), while curtailing them. Where have we come, since we first landed a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960’s? Where are we going?
“The Gift Outright” – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237942
The Kennedy Inaugural Address – http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html