It seems like only yesterday. The young handsome president standing at the podium on his inauguration day challenging the youth of American to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was motivational and awe inspiring and made a young girl believe that anything was possible. Dare to be, dare to dream, it is all in front of you ripe for the taking.
Not all that long ago that same young girl was riding the bus to the Kennedy presidential campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago, picking up fliers and bumper stickers and passing them out in her neighborhood. She truly believed this man could make a difference, change the stodgy and old fashioned ways that the country had been governed and reinvigorate young and old alike to believe in the importance of their participation in the political process. She could not understand why a person’s religion could be such a major issue and, since it was also her religion, felt persecuted for reasons she could not understand. But in the end it did not matter. She just knew he would be elected, and he was. So, as she watched him speak on inauguration day (it was the first time her school allowed the classrooms to watch a televised event) she dreamed of a bright future, a new way of thinking and being, a right of passage, a happily ever after…
Fast forward some three years later. The same young girl sitting in her classroom when from out of nowhere the school principal’s voice comes over the loud speaker system, “The president has been shot. All classes proceed to the church so we can pray for him.” No one could believe it, it couldn’t be true. The president shot? And as if in a dream the classrooms filed into church where the pastor lead them in praying the rosary. When the final prayer concluded the pastor stepped up to the lectern and uttered the shocking words, “The president has died. Classes are dismissed for the day.”
Wait, what – what did you say? The president what? No, no it can’t be true. But the eerie silence in the church led the young girl to believe that the worst must have happened. But how, why? In this day and age? Weren’t assassinations a thing of the past? I mean, not since Lincoln and McKinley right? She was so confused.
The next three days were like living in a fog. At first the utter disbelief, there was no way this could happen. Then going home and turning on the television. Once again another first. Programming on every station, and there were only four at the time, was preempted and entirely devoted to what was unfolding nationally. The young girl sat glued to the set hoping at some point this would wind up being another ruse like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. It was not to be. Just one look at the beautiful young First Lady bleary eyed in her blood stained clothes and the harsh reality set in.
Shock is a strange bedfellow. It manifests itself in a variety of ways, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, tears and even inappropriate laughter. Shock made the young girl feel like she was living outside of herself, watching the events unfold and her reactions to them like an interested bystander not wanting to believe what she was seeing or experience the pain. But there was no escaping it. Picture after somber picture flashed before her eyes, a hearse pulling up to the White House, a coffin lying in the Blue Room, a familiar rocking chair being moved out the back door, a young and spirited horse, BlackJack by name, being forced to try to walk solemnly behind the flag draped coffin, row upon row of foreign dignitaries, that all too familiar drum beat cadence providing the continual heart breaking rhythm to the funeral procession, a little girl reaching under an American flag to touch her father’s coffin and thousands upon thousands of crying mourners filing through the Capitol Rotunda for one last chance to say thank you and good-bye.
She continued to pray. Please if this is a bad dream let me wake up, only to be sitting with her grandmother watching live TV as Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. This is unreal! When will it stop? But there was no stopping it. Image upon image flashed before her, the flag draped coffin placed on a horse drawn caisson, a little boy bravely saluting his father, a mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, burial at Arlington National Cemetery and the lighting of the eternal flame by a young widow, a tear stained black sheath covering her face. All these images seared into the young girl’s consciousness. And those same images are as clear today as they were 50 years ago.
And as with any catastrophic event like this or 9/11, once you experience them you always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. But for me, there is on major difference between the two. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated my innocence was buried with him.