I was six months past my thirteenth birthday when I learned of President Kennedy’s assassination, and I admit I had the political awareness of a rock…a very dumb rock. I knew Kennedy was big dodo but I’m really not sure I completely knew why until I became a history major five years later. I still had the political awareness of a rock but at least I came to understand the political history of the past.
We were called back to homeroom from our eighth grade PE class. We weren’t happy. During those days PE was a welcomed break from the academic day. When we arrived at Mrs. Biggerstaff’s room we could tell something was wrong just by the look on her face.
I’ve tried to remember the feelings. Can’t quite conger up what they were. My age and cynicism are interfering. I remember how quiet the class grew, quite unusual for an eighth-grade class full of hormone-driven early teens. Sounds seemed muted. Even the bus ride home was quiet. Quiet as “inside of a tomb” quiet.
The young Kennedy was a handsome man with a beautiful wife and family. He spoke in that “funny Yankee” accent but for some reason made people want to listen. I remember reading accounts of his bravery during World War Two and later attending the movie made about his exploits. I remember feeling sorry for his wife, especially after seeing her in her blood-soaked dress as a solemn LBJ was sworn in.
Fridays were “go to town day” normally a family adventure. Monroe, NC, was the destination only because there was a bank that stayed open longer than any in much closer Fort Mill. Mom, Dad, Nannie, and little brother Stevie joined me inside our nearly brand new ’63 Galaxy 500. I can remember how we sat, and I can remember the faces on the people we met as we drove the eighteen miles to town.
My grandmother, a staunch Protestant Republican who worried the Catholic Kennedy might steal the White House silverware couldn’t believe someone would assassinate him. Catholic or Protestant it was just wrong.
Maybe I am merely projecting but everyone seemed to have a pained look on their faces…even on the main street of Monroe. There was a kind of reverie to the day. People moved as if in a trance.
I’m sure Kennedy’s legacy has grown over the years. He attempted much and was thwarted, much of his New Frontier collapsed under the weight of Republicans and Southern Democrats. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not be implemented until after his death. There was also the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Diem and the beginning escalation of the Vietnam War.
On the plus side, he championed Civil Rights, stood up to the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, established the Peace Corps and challenged us to leave our earthly confines. Some of his New Frontier proposals were implemented after his death.
There was a hope with Kennedy that we could be more, do more, that we could be a type of Camelot. An idealism that we could make a difference. Maybe that was what I was feeling…a simple loss of hope for a world that could be better…or maybe I’ve gotten old and cynical.
A very conservative acquaintance stated that Kennedy was the last great Democrat. I countered with “and Eisenhower was the last great Republican.” It was a somewhat argumentative conversation. I don’t know. Maybe it was my youthful idealism and propensity for chasing windmills…something I am happy to say I haven’t put aside. I wish we had another Kennedy or Eisenhower…and the political parties who supported them.
Don Miller writes on various subjects, non-fiction, and fiction. His author’s page is at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM
The featured image is a picture from the Chicago Tribune.