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.
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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?