“OUR MOST BASIC COMMON LINK is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the United States, serving from January 1961 until he was assassinated in November 1963, fifty years ago today.
Like 9/11 and other shared tragedies, John Kennedy’s assassination is branded indelibly on our minds and hearts. I was thirteen years old then, a freshman in high school. The news didn’t reach us until late in the day. Television and radio were not encouraged at St. Joe’s.
It was a Friday and after our last class those of us who lived on the convent grounds scrambled to the rail station to head home to our families. Unaware, we apparently behaved just the way you might expect silly teenagers to behave when they are giddy with sudden freedom. We didn’t notice that the adults on the train were somber and perhaps some were teary-eyed. To us, it was just another Friday. We joked and gossiped and one-by-one got off the train when it came to our stops; one-by-one we were met by our shocked and grieving parents. From them we learned the sobering news and wondered who would do such a thing – the communists? – and what were the implications. We all knew that no president in this country had been assassinated since President William McKinley in 1901, our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time. It seemed unreal.
It also seemed unreal to return to school on Sunday night as though everything was normal. It wasn’t. The girls, the nuns, the school and convent, like the country, were in mourning. The majority of our parents and probably virtually all of the nuns, had voted for Kennedy, though not all thought he was a perfect man (who is?) or even a perfect President. I do remember one father speculating (the Bay of Pigs rankled) that Kennedy might have been good for the time and place in history and, after all, he was President of the country we cherished….and still do. Respect the office if not the man.
Our own sadness wasn’t reserved just for the “President” and the country. It was for the man as well, for the handsome young man who’d fought in the war beside our fathers and uncles, the hero of P.T. 109, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, and the dad whose life was cut short. We were sad for his now fatherless children. We felt for Jacqueline Kennedy too and admired her grace and courage. We wondered what it would mean to have the large, crude and boisterous Lyndon B. Johnson as President.
Those of us who rode the rails home that Friday were taken to task the next week by the nuns for our behavior on the train. Other passengers had registered complaints with the school about our “disrespect.” The nuns didn’t realize we hadn’t known about the murder. None of the other passengers bothered to tell us. I remember standing with our heads bowed while we were lectured. We took our punishment without defense or complaint. Something bigger than this moment of being misunderstood and falsely accused had happened. To this day, my mind can play back the news reports and see the newspaper articles, but I cannot remember what punishment was meted out for our perceived lapse in decorum.
I think after Kennedy’s assassination, we girls began to watch and analyze news and politics more closely than we had before. Among other things the evolution of Robert Kennedy, women’s rights and the growing support for the Civil Rights Movement, the horror of the Viet Nam War, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, dramatically marked the place and the era as one of growth and grief, triumph and tragedy.
© 2013, essay, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo credit ~ the Executive Office of the President of the United States and as such in the U.S. public domain