Remembering John F. Kennedy
So it’s the anniversary week of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and today I found myself pondering the fact that we make so much of the day he died, rather than celebrating his accomplishments on his birthday. Then I realized that it’s because we all remember — those of us over 55 — every moment of that day he was shot; we can feel the day in our own memories. I was in the sixth grade, and our principal called us to the auditorium and said, “Our President is dead. Everyone go home.” I walked home — a long way home, in the rain — and no one was there when I arrived. I sat alone on the steps of our house on that cold, gray afternoon and wondered if the world was coming to an end. I didn’t feel the enormity of it; I just watched everyone talking about the enormity of it. And then followed that long weekend when, for the first time in history, every TV program was preempted and we all watched the same images unfold over and over again. Then, two days after Kennedy was shot, Jack Ruby shot Oswald right there in front of us on live TV, and in the chaos that ensued, I knew nothing would ever be the same.
But Kennedy’s assassination was not an ending. It was the beginning for my generation. There was Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, civil rights marches gone awry, I Have A Dream speeches, Vietnam protests, friends getting drafted, and an entire subculture that stood up for what we believed in. Me? I was at the University of Nebraska standing up for nothing other than Cornhuskers every fall Saturday. I did work for Nixon’s reelection campaign, volunteering and feeling good about it. I think we can all agree that that endeavor didn’t turn out so well. I watched him resign at Crystal Lake Lodge, where I was a Dirty Dancing Waitress for the summer, and the crowd of liberal New Yorkers who came each year for their week at the Lodge cheered as if we’d won World War II. Me? I stood at the back of the room wondering at their pleasure. Our President had resigned on TV, in disgrace, and I felt disgraced too. I wondered what the rest of the world thought, (a world of which I knew little), and I was embarrassed.
In the midst of the political carnage of the sixties and seventies, I remember first hearing a song on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Smothers Brothers — Dick and Tommy — were like the Fred Rogers of comedy in the sixties, and for their time they were very, very funny. The laughs were usually at Tommy’s expense, but he didn’t seem to mind. They invited Dion to come on and sing Abraham Martin & John, the song that wrapped it up for all of us. The song was about the very public, very violent deaths of four great men, three of whom had been leaders of our day who inspired hope. Where had all these men gone? Abraham Lincoln. John Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy. Martin Luther King? Three of them dying on my teenage watch. Over the hill to where? And what happened to how they made us feel? It’s a song for the ages, and I hope those of you who do not remember those times will take a moment to listen. It will tell you of that time long, long ago, when Americans dreamed of an America that was just a bit better than it was at that time, and they were willing to give up things to get it.
John Kennedy should not be remembered for that day fifty years ago when shots rang out from the book depository in Dallas, but rather for his courage under fire during World War II, when he swam another man a half mile to safety in Japanese waters, despite a back injury that would plague him for the rest of his life. He should be remembered for starting the Peace Corps. For standing up for civil rights. For having the courage to own the responsibility for the terrible Bay of Pigs incident. For spurring us to greater heights in space. For taking Jackie to Paris and showing the world that we were no longer the new-world America with no taste, but a new, sophisticated America that could send our fashionable and fabulous first couple overseas with pride. For his “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” line, which I think should replace the Pledge of Allegiance in our schools. For being the first public man I can recall to be unashamed of his love for his small children, and the first one to celebrate Bring Your Children to Work Day. For saying, “Yes we can,” and then proving it. And last but not least, in my American sixth-grade girl’s opinion, for having great hair.