Most of us Baby Boomers have two days in our lives that we can remember “where we where when….”. The most recent is September 11, 2001 and the other is November 22, 1963.
I was in Sr. Theresa Aloysius 4th grade class. Someone came to the door and called Sister into the hall. When she came back in, she turned on the big black & white TV on the high, rolling stand in the corner. That was very unusual. The TV was only turned on to watch a few, select educational shows on WNET. At first it was a little hard to figure out what was going on. It was just a bunch of the old guys my family watched at night talking. Then Walter Cronkite (everybody knew who he was), came on and said “President Kennedy has died”. I don’t think any of us got it at first but then we saw Sister crying. Nuns never cried. This was bad, really bad. I don’t know if it was a chain reaction or if we all finally understood, but in a few moments, the entire class – even the boys – was crying. The Principal, Mother Mary Conrad, came on the PA and told us we were being dismissed early.
For three days, the TV was never turned off in my house. Everyone was somber, sometimes just standing around watching that little screen. Time was suspended. I don’t think I truly understood the impact of those events at that time. I knew JFK was important. He was like a superhero. He was going to save us from the Communists. His picture hung in every classroom (and in some homes) right next to the picture of Pope John XXIII. He was the President and he was Catholic. And, the icing on the cake, he was Irish! I remember everyone dressed in black. In my mind though, all of this is mixed up with Daddy, who less than three weeks later, was dead himself.
I understand now that Kennedy’s death was a watershed event in our history. We were a nation of optimists and that optimism was shattered. It has never come back completely. Perhaps we were just naive. We have learned that this wonderful man had a dark side; that much of what was presented was smoke and mirrors. Still, I prefer to remember him as the heart of Camelot. A man of great youth and “vig-aaar” who tried to push this country into a “new frontier”. Who dragged us kicking and screaming out of our segregated past.
Like all great men, like all of us, history continues to show him as a flawed human being, not the demi-god we saw him as in those days. In my mind, however, he will always be the handsome Irishman with the sparkling blue eyes and ready wit who made us all believe anything was possible.
Here’s to you Jack! In your short time here, you reminded us that we are a county of imagination and courage; a people of promise. Perhaps we will never recapture the innocence of those days, but we will move forward with hope for the future and the belief in the strength and goodness of the American Spirit.