It’ll be 50 years this Friday since John Fitzgerald Kennedy, better known as JFK, the 35th President of the US, was shot and killed while in a motorcade in Dallas TX.
I’ve known for quite some time that my blog for today would remember John Kennedy. He was, after all, the man most responsible for the founding of the Peace Corps.
His inaugural call to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” called tens of thousands of young men and women to dedicate their lives to peace, to bridge the gap between cultures that too often divide us, to dedicate their careers to service for a greater good. How could I not revere his memory?
In At Home On the Kazakh Steppe, I compare the feelings of adoration the Kazakh people have today toward their president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to those I remember feeling in the very early 1960s, when John F Kennedy was in the White House.
How strong was the feeling of optimism, of trust in our government then, of hope in the future. It was, indeed, Camelot.
Click here to listen to Richard Burton singing the title song from Camelot
(the ad only lasts 8 seconds)
After Kennedy’s death there followed in all too rapid succession:
o Assassinations of public servants
o Public demonstrations of a magnitude never before seen in the US.
o Riots in the streets
Never again would an entire generation feel so called to action as we did in the 1960s.
This morning as I was rearranging my basement, moving an old dresser among other things, I opened a drawer and found the stack of newspapers I’d saved for fifty years, neatly wrapped in an old bed sheet. I opened the package and the first headline to hit me was the one from that fateful day, November 22, 1963, from the Newark Star-Ledger:
JFK Tours Texas
Of course it would say that, I told myself. The Newark Star-Ledger was (and I think still is) a morning paper and had hit the streets long before President Kennedy set foot in Dallas that day.
I didn’t want to read the story of Kennedy’s fated trip to Dallas. I knew it had been a campaign trip: fundraiser certainly, but also a trip designed to heal a political rift in the state’s Democratic Party.
It was the other stories of that day that caught my attention, stories that disappeared overnight as the tragedy went front and center in all media, and not just for the day. Television covered nothing but the assassination the entire weekend, and on into the following week.
That’s how anyone who was not on their way home from church got to see Jack Ruby, a local bar owner and alleged Kennedy fan, shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, at point blank range.
November 22, 1963 was the day after the Birdman of Alcatraz died. And I don’t mean Burt Reynolds. His name was Robert F. Stroud. He was 73 when he died in his sleep, after 43 years of solitary confinement. In preparing for this post, I learned that Stroud had written an extensive history of the US penal system, Looking Outward, covering its beginnins in colonial times to the 1930s, when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons was established. To date, no publisher has picked it up, allegedly for fear of libel. It languishes yet in an attorney’s file drawer.
It was the day after police in Manhattan discovered a cache of stolen jewelry in an East Side New York apartment. A search for the thieves led police to New Jersey.
Other news of November 22, 1963:
• New Jersey’s Governor Richard Hughes and his wife, returned from vacation in the Caribbean. They’d been away since November 6, the day after Election Day.
• Bobby Baker’s name was in the news, again. I never did understand that story. I still don’t.
• The New Jersey State Senate President, it was reported, was to announce on Monday a two-month extension of price controls on milk, reducing cost of milk from 25 cents a quart to 21 cents.
• A U-2 plane that had crashed after a reconnaissance flight over Cuba, was found at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, 40 miles northwest of Key West, Florida. The cockpit was empty, fueling hope that the pilot had survived.
• The premier of The Congo charged that the Soviet Union was financing a plot to overthrow his pro-Western government.
• And New Jersey charged “politics” as it battled with New York’s Port Authority over placement of a new Jetport.
There were some grizzly murders reported, too. Has there ever been a newspaper with no grizzly murder to report? But in 1963, the weapon of choice was a knife.
Fifty years ago Friday, I was a sophomore in high school, sitting in English class, waiting to give my presentation on the Soviet – US spy exchange (Francis Gary Powers for Rudolf Abel) on the Glienicker bridge between Potsdam and Berlin, Germany.
I never gave it.
Classes were cancelled immediately, and eventually band practice and Saturday’s football game too. I came home to roost in front of the television for the next three days.
For those of my generation, the JFK assassination became the first of many moments of “where were you when…”
o John F Kennedy was shot
o Martin Luther King Jr. was shot
o Bobby Kennedy was shot
o The Challenger Exploded
o The children of Sandy Hook were gunned down
And we can all think of at least a half dozen others to add, not to mention the hurricanes, the tornadoes, the earthquakes, the fires.
Thanks in part to the 24/7 news cycle we now must endure, tragedies from somewhere around the globe fall on my doorstep weekly. And I usually empathize, I often contribue, I sometimes grieve. But I don’t feel shock; I don’t feel devastated. And I don’t feel surprised.
Have I become inured to tragedy, desensitized to the pain, the shock of whatever horrific event has catapulted into the headlines?
Is that the final legacy of the JFK assassination?
That I’m just not shocked anymore?
And I find that terribly sad.
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Next week: Finding Joy again
What do you remember of those Camelot days?
Your text and images all recall an event that stands out in my mind in bold relief. I remember being in a classroom and receiving the horrifying news via a messenger at the door. TIme stood still!
One thing I am highlighting in my blog on Saturday is Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Kennedy family members all were highly competitive and practiced what they preached to the nation. This blog highlights that fact.
Great post, Janet–very timely!
Thanks, Marion, I’ll look forward to reading that on Saturday. The Kennedys were indeed big on physical fitness: starting the Special Olympics as a case in point. The stories of their touch football games are legion.
It was an amazing time: people in the 1% (though back then it was closer to the more statistically appropriate 20%) working to ensure that the other 99% had what it took to have a good life, rather than just beefing up their own wealth.
Don’t get me started.
Thanks for dropping by.
Your poignant post returns me to that day and the years that followed. Like you, I am no longer surprised or shocked but I do grieve, it seems, more these days. In Buddhism, it is the warrior’s way (bodhisattva) to hold the sorrow of the world in one’s heart or so I have heard Pema Chodron say. My understanding of the bodhisattva is that it is not that the warrior must “do” something about the sorrow but that in seeing the world as it is, we develop compassion, perhaps the most powerful tool we can ever hone.
I am a bit off topic but in these days after Camelot–the story of Merlin plays through my mind–it may be that if we develop our compassion, we will, as the Buddha has taught, “end our suffering.” Thanks for letting this mostly Buddhist woman reflect a moment.
As always, a fine and thought-provoking post, Janet.
Thanks, Karen. You raise interesting ideas. Various Buddhist teachings have been of interest to me for many years. This idea of “holding the sorrow of the world in one’s heart” — the same as “seeing the world as it is”? — and in so doing, finding compassion, is compelling. And I’m going to see how I can incorporate it into next week’s post on FInding Joy Again. So glad you stopped by.
Shirley Hershey Showalter
Janet, you and I are the same age. I too was a sophomore. I share the story in my book Blush. I invite you to post this story to my FB page. https://www.facebook.com/ShirleyHersheyShowalter
So many of my friends are writing on this subject that I thought it would be nice to collect the stories for younger readers. Your would be a welcome addition.
Thanks so much, Shirley. I appreciate your support. Others’ stories are always interesting to me, but even more so when I share so much with the teller. And, of course, the older we get, the fewer will be those who will remember. [Kind of like those groups of WWII Veterans who keep meeting each year, getting fewer and fewer in number. And, when I was a child, it was the Veterans of the Spanish Americand war.] Best wishes with your upcoming book signing, btw. At times like this, I wish I were still in Philly.
November 22 1963 two other writers died…Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, buried in the back pages of newspapers the following day, or not mentioned at all. Years later I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley and will be writing on my blog,atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com on Friday about how she dealt with her husband’s death on the day JFK was assassinated.
I’m so glad you mention them, Terri. Thank you. I hadn’t heard the Aldous Huxley connection, but I NOW recall I knew about C. S. Lewis. I’m so sorry I didn’t think of it yesterday when I was writing the post. In fact, I’ll check the papers of the 23rd and 24th. I have newspapers saved all the way through the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. (about a week or two later; I was in the habit by then of setting the papers aside; it was a hard habit to break as I recall. Though I did eliminate about half of my collection a few years ago, during one of my moves.). Anyway, welcome and thanks for stopping by.
Janet , you brought me right back to that vivid moment in time when our generation ( and world) would be changed forever. Little did we know at the time it would be the first of many incidents to jar our sense of security. I was a high school senior, also in English class when we received the news. Then I spent the weekend glued to our TV in disbelief and grief. Your question about being desensitized to the continual barrage of tragedies is provocative as well as unsettling. I agree, how sad that such tragedies appear to be a matter of course these days. Excellent post. Thank you.
Janet, your post transported me back to my senior year in high school sitting in, of all places, American History. Suddenly, the intercom came on and our principal announced the tragic news of that day. Like you, we went home early and sat glued to the TV watching every minute of coverage. It is a day I know I’ll never forget, along with so many others since then. Thank you for this beautifully written remembrance of a great man and President.
Kathy and Sherry, Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment. I so appreciate your support. I have to chuckle: in the midst of the sadness that this blog is about, I am struck by the fact that what these remembrances are also doing is lining us up by age. “Ooh, Kathy’s a bit older than I, Sherrey must be younger by a few years. Shirley is the same age.” Why do i do that? Heaven only knows. In the midst of heartbreak and loss, it’s often helpful to find something we can smile about.