Has There Ever Been a Time Like This?
I was six years old when John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address that cold January in 1961. I remember watching it on TV with my family. I could tell from the adults in the room that this was an important event. I think I even remember hearing those words, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” but I may be remembering clips of that speech that have been aired so many times and in so many venues since that day. I must have picked up on the excitement of that period because I can recall asking my parents, “Did we have a president before President Kennedy?” That question resulted in a mini, age-appropriate civics lesson about our country. I now realize that my question about whether there was a president before JFK was emblematic of the times. John F. Kennedy, with his energy and charisma, sparked a widespread interest in both knowing how the country works and in giving back in public service. Thinking about a child’s heart and the way a six-year-old views the world, another way to ask my question would have been, “Has there ever been a time like this?”
Dark Days as Well
There were troubled times as well during JFK’s 1,000 days. I was a second grader when the Cuban missile crisis was in play in October of 1962, and I can remember those days. We talked about it at school, though we spoke as the seven-year-olds that we were, reflecting what we picked up at home. There was worry about the Russians and fear of war. One of my classmates said, “They have a bomb so big it will blow up everybody.” That did not make sense to me, but my friend assured me, “That bomb could kill everybody – even YOU!” Fortunately, that crisis was resolved and we were soon carefree school kids again.
Another factor to the times was that there was an anti-Kennedy sentiment in the rural Protestant South where I grew up. Some of that suspicion, I suppose, arose from the President being Catholic, but most of the animosity, I am sure, arose from moves to implement Brown vs. the Board of Education. Racial integration was being resisted; our own Governor campaigned on segregation and famously stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in June of 1963 to prevent the registration of black students. Everyone knew the times were changing, virtually no one was admitting it.
I often heard classmates scorn President Kennedy. I wasn’t sure why they were expressing such disdain because I liked what I saw of him on television. As a child, of course, I grasped little of the politics but I always liked the image the president projected. At the time, school milk cartons carried the faces of American presidents along with a short biography. Some of the kids cut them out and collected them. Occasionally, someone would find a milk carton with JFK’s picture on it and ceremoniously stomp it into the ground. This was reflective of the animosity felt in the South toward Kennedy.
Then Came that Day
On that fateful day, shortly after the lunch period at school while we were in recess out on the playground, someone came with the news that the President had been shot. The initial reaction of some was to think it was a joke. I saw kids dancing and celebrating, thinking they were acting out that same old ceremony of stomping a milk carton into the ground. Then when we realized that it was no joke – this was actual fact, a somber and fearful mood settled over our third grade class.
I was the one who broke the news to my own father. He came to pick me up after school. My dad had been running errands and did not have the radio on. Furthermore, in those days of vacuum tubes, most people didn’t keep the television set on all during the day. As we were walking to the car, I asked him if he had heard that the president had been shot. He didn't know; my dad heard the news first from my mouth. In the 50 years since that day, I don’t think I have stopped to consider this until now, but the moment is clear in my memory. What does it mean for a boy to be the one to tell his father that the President has been shot? I think what I wanted most was to let the news rest in my father’s capable hands so I wouldn’t have to worry. What followed at our house was just what was happening across the country. We turned on the TV and kept it on to find out as much as we could.
Unlike any time in our memory, television coverage continued nonstop over the course of the next few days. My brothers and I turned on the TV on Saturday morning expecting to watch cartoons. Instead, there was continuing news coverage. News was not supposed to be on TV on Saturday morning. We kept watching, hoping that we would eventually see our cartoons return, but instead we saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot down on live television.
Making Our Way
We watched the president’s funeral on television – the President who was first to take advantage of the television medium and use it to his advantage was now the center of a televised national mourning. After the grief, we had to learn to move on. We had to learn to live with ordinary leaders and lack-luster times as we proceeded through the cold war, civil rights, the Viet Nam War, student unrest and racial strife.
As we have moved on, we have lived with the nagging thoughts of what might have been. In the process, we have understandably given John F. Kennedy a hero’s status. We have held up what we see as his strengths: a space program, a quest for peace, the directive for racial equality, the call for a higher national purpose. The most important thing that I take away from the Kennedy phenomenon is that however he may or may not have embodied these ideals, these are the values that we as a people insist upon holding up as the national ideal. That has been encouraging to me though the years: that however we have lived up to or fallen short of those ideals, when we ascribe traits to our presidential hero, these are the values we insist upon. For that very reason, there is hope that we can make it, because these are indeed our values. We can make it, as JFK said about the mission to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”