I remember where I was when I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been killed. While this is a line that probably sounds familiar to many people of a certain age, it is also somewhat problematic in my case. I was seven years old at the time and Kennedy had already been gone ten years by then.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1973 and my family was enjoying our annual holiday feast which, for the first and only time I can remember, had deviated from my grandmother’s kitchen to that of my mother. We had moved into a brand new home earlier that year and I suppose my mother wanted to host the special event in her own dining room for once. Somewhere in the conversation, the topic of JFK came up and that this particular Thanksgiving Day was the tenth anniversary of his death. This topic was discussed for several minutes, long enough for me to discern that it was one of significance to all of the adults seated around the dining room table. Later, I asked my mother about President Kennedy and she told me the story I was to hear many more times over the ensuing years, about the day it happened, how she had been in high school and how it was the only time her Principal had ever shown a hint of emotion. She even went so far as to show me an article about him from the dark green Merit Student Encyclopedia that resided on the bookshelf in our family room.
Living in a small town before the age of the internet and CNN, I was blissfully unaware of all the bad things that had ensued in that ten year period of time that included my entire life up then. Richard Nixon had been the President as far back as I could remember and while he was going through his own troubles at the time, this too was off my radar. I had little, if any knowledge of the other things of my time; a war in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the protests and riots of the late 1960’s, Civil Rights and the integration of public schools and universities and a lot of other things. The one major memory I did have of the 1960’s was watching the lunar landing of Apollo 11 because my parents made sure I saw it and years later, I would learn of JFK’s role in that pivotal moment of history that took place years after he was gone.
To say that JFK has been an object of fascination and study most all of my life would be an understatement. I’ve always been fascinated with U.S. history and our presidents all played a big part of that but I guess that Kennedy was the first President to touch or at least directly influence my generation, even from beyond the grave. Both the man and his presidency was markedly different from that of his predecessors and because of the proliferation of television by that time and his willingness to avail himself of it, much of it was recorded for posterity and future study, both by those that lived during that time as well as those of us who came after it. That, plus his untimely death turned his goals into mandates while at the same time, ensuring that he would forever remain youthful, vigorous and, for the most part, untarnished by the frailties of human behavior that plagued all of his successors in some way. It’s hard to believe as I write this that at the time he died, he was only a year older than I am now.
Over the decades since that day of awareness, I have studied his life and his presidency in great detail. I have read biographies, both biased and unbiased; watched movies where he was portrayed by actors and documentaries where he was the star of the show with a supporting cast of politically powerful family members second to none. I have read his speeches and then watched them as he delivered them, thanks to power of YouTube. I have even been accused of mimicking his rhetorical style of public speaking when I give a speech or deliver a sermon and I can’t deny that because I tend to use speech in the style of speakers that engage me and hold my interest. One speech in particular still charges me up to this day and that is the one he gave at Rice University in 1962, not just because it was one of his best speeches but because it is the one where he gave us our mandate to reach for the moon and beyond. Apollo and our space program is probably the only part of recent history that had always engaged me even more than Kennedy himself did so it is no surprise that I consider it the greatest speech he ever gave. His opening statement lets you know from the start the power that his words conveyed:
“We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”
From there, all that was and still is President John F. Kennedy, which defined him, drove him and brought our nation along with him was evident. I still feel great pride when I hear the part where he said “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”.
My own son became fascinated with the Presidents when he was in Kindergarten because he wanted to know who the people were on our coins and currency (he loves coins and spends a lot of time looking for wheat pennies, bicentennial quarters and state quarters he doesn’t have yet). After learning about Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt, I showed him a coin he had not seen before, a half dollar that I had with Kennedy’s image on it. I told him they were special coins, both because you didn’t see them very often and because they had a special President on it. Like me, he enjoys learning about space, rockets and the moon and because he quickly figured out that Kennedy was important to me and involved in the moon program, Kennedy soon became his favorite president as well.
If I was watching something on the history channel that was related to Kennedy, he wanted to watch it too. At his age of seven, people on television are real to him because he can see them move, speak and interact with others, regardless of whether the images are of people that are living or those who are long departed. Kennedy became for him a much more interesting President than those who are known only by portraits or grainy old black and white footage such as that of President Roosevelt. I think he sees Kennedy as someone of our era, if not of our generation because he associates the Kennedy presidency as being close enough to his Daddy’s time to count as recent history. I think it especially struck close to home with him when I showed him pictures of and told him that Kennedy, like me, had a little boy whom he adored.
A few days ago, my wife and I took him on his first trip to Washington DC, which for me was only my second time visiting our nation’s capital. We visited many of the tourist sites, including the various memorials and monuments, which he found interesting but not necessarily engaging enough to hold his attention for more than a few minutes each, with one notable exception. One of my goals for this trip was to visit Arlington National Cemetery, a place I didn’t get to see on my first trip to Washington and of course, the resting place of President Kennedy. My son seemed particularly interested in seeing this as well and so we found ourselves on a cloudy, overcast day entering the gates of Arlington and making our way through the vast cemetery where lay the remains of so many of America’s finest men and women.
The gloomy sky could not begin to diminish the beauty of Arlington where the manicured grass was green and where many of the trees still blazed with autumn colors of red, orange and yellow. Against this backdrop, row upon row of gleaming white gravestone reared themselves proudly, like soldiers at attention, reminding all of us making the journey up the steep, winding pathway to conduct ourselves with reverence and respect due the soldiers who had secured and protected our nation and its freedom. About halfway up the great hill, the path diverged and we followed the sign directing us to the right and onward towards Kennedy’s grave, speaking only in hushed tones and noting the names on some of the graves closest to the path. Finally, we arrived at the site.
There were, perhaps, twenty-five or so gathered there around the large burial site that resided in the shadow of the Arlington mansion, once the home to General Robert E. Lee of Virginia and another place I wanted to see but would have to defer to the future. For now, my attention was focused on the grave of President Kennedy and those of his wife, Jacqueline and the two children they had lost early in their marriage. Behind the grouping of flat, simple markers, the famous eternal flame burned brightly and I could sense, in fact feel the weight of being in the presence of this great President that, like that flame, had burned brightly, if only for a short span of time. It had a profound effect on me, as I think it did all of those who stood around me gazing at it. We were all standing in front of the site, my wife a few feet away but as I turned to look for my son, I didn’t immediately see him. I began to look beyond the crowd and then I spotted him but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.
Off to the left side of the gravesite, away from the crowds that he tends to avoid, he was there all by himself, kind of in a kneeling position but sitting on his foot just looking at the burial site and watching the flame that burned from the stone set into the ground. I’ve seen many sides of my son, most of them good, occasionally not quite so good but I had never seen this aspect of him before. For several minutes he just sat there like that, reflective, lost in thought and very respectful of his surroundings. I made a few pictures of him without his noticing me because if he had, he would have immediately shifted or gotten up. If seeing where Kennedy rested was not a moving enough experience for me, seeing my seven year old son moved to silence in the presence of a President who died over forty years before he was born was profoundly powerful.
Such was the power of the man that was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In his greatest years, he challenged us as a nation to do more, to go beyond what was necessary, to accomplish great things and to conquer new frontiers. So great was his influence and so tragic was the untimely death that left his work unfinished that his generation rose to the tasks he put before us and finished it for him. His influence, like the torch he mentioned in his inaugural address, carried on to the next generation that didn’t blossom during his presidency but who can look back and claim a piece of his history because he paved the road which we all travelled down…and now, today, I can see that that torch has indeed been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in THIS century and also tempered by war and so much more. He was a not a perfect man, any more than our other presidents have been, but the ideals he put forth and the history that has ensued compel us to look beyond flaws, to choose to go to the moon, to Mars and, as he put it, “to do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.
Thank you President Kennedy. Your words still resonate, your light still burns brightly and your nation will continue to find inspiration in the legacy that you left to us.