My oldest grandson is 12 years old.
That was my age when Mrs. Marshall interrupted my eighth grade class at Lily Lake school to announce that President Kennedy had been shot as the presidential motorcade passed through Dallas, Texas. A short time later, we heard that the president was dead. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our new president.
How does a 12 year old kid process the assassination of our president?
Probably more than most kids my age, I was fairly in tune with national and world affairs. The news and politics were openly discussed at supper* every night. Well, discussion is maybe a stretch, Dad did most of the talking and it was our role to agree with his views. But since Dad was right on everything, that was not a problem… until I got a little older and dared to disagree occasionally.
But there at the table, I always sitting at Dad’s right, I learned the good and the bad of Hoover, FDR and the New Deal, Truman, all presidents as my dad was coming of age. I knew what was good and bad about the Secretary of Agriculture. I knew who was good and bad in state and county government.
Born in the time of Harry Truman, the only president I knew before Kennedy was Ike, our home state World War II hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dad was born in Abilene, Kansas** where the Texas born Eisenhower was raised. I had my Nixon campaign button in 1960. I was assured that Kennedy’s razor thin victory was caused by Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow that didn’t play well in the first televised debates. Radio listeners said Nixon won the debate. TV watchers called it for Kennedy. Or perhaps the election was even stolen by “Vote early, vote often” practices in Chicago. In 1963, the 1964 campaign was already underway with bumper stickers that said, “Kennedy for King, Goldwater for President.”
But no matter what I believed or was told, I knew that John F. Kennedy was the president.
I don’t recall much about the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, proposed by Nixon, planned by Eisenhower, and carried out in the early weeks of Kennedy’s presidency.
I was very aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I knew we lived in a dangerous world where the Soviets would happily wipe the United States off the map if they could figure out a way to do it without a U.S. counter attack. Mutually assured destruction was the theme of the day, our primary hope that it wouldn’t happen was the madness of nuclear arms.
Heady stuff for a 12 year old.
I remember rumors about the president and Marilyn Monroe, the press’s obsession with Jackie, the sadness of baby Patrick’s birth and death. I remember all kinds of things about J. Edgar Hoover, FBI head for life, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy taking on the mafia and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union, and the mutual hatred between Bobby and the Vice-president, LBJ.***
I was in the early stages of developing my own view of government. Seeds were planted for a possible career in politics. I would straighten it all out.
Then, November 22, 1963.
I actually remember more about Monday the 25th, the day of the funeral, than Friday, the 22nd. The only kid in my class who had no television at home., I was mesmerized by watching the funeral all day long on the TV brought into the basement lunchroom of our school; the horse drawn caisson bearing the president’s body; the extremely restless rider-less horse coming along behind, the salute of three year old JFK, Jr.
It was then that I learned little John’s birthday was the day of his daddy’s funeral, and that big sister Caroline would have her 6th birthday just two days later. I’ve never forgotten that I have something in common with a Kennedy, a shared birthday with Caroline on November 27 when I turned thirteen. Now, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline is 7 years younger than I am. I still see her as the fatherless 6 year old.
How much do I actually remember from that day, those days, and how much has been filled in over time?
That’s impossible to know, but I do know it was for me the most disturbing event in world news until 9/11/2001. And like 9/ll, there were those who couldn’t take a break from politics and rejoiced in evil. But for most of the nation, we stopped being Democrats and Republicans for a few days. We grieved the death of our president. We were sobered by our dangerous world. We expressed our fears. We felt united as a nation in our grief.
Those political aspirations that were stirred at the supper table? I haven’t abandoned my strong views about the role of government. I still wish I could influence what goes on in Washington or in the state house. But I no longer put my hope in the government of men and women. The only rational place for hope is in God.
Consider Psalm 33:12ff
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.
3 From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; 14 from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth— 15 he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do.
16 No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. 17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. 18 But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, 19 to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
20 We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. 21 In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. 22 May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.
I don’t remember thinking about it in 1963, but the uniquely**** American holiday, Thanksgiving, came just six days after JFK’s death, just three days after his funeral. May we give thanks for God’s blessing, protection, care; and most of all thanks to God for the Son who was killed and raised from the dead for our salvation.
* I still have trouble thinking of dinner as the evening meal. Farmers eat dinner at noon. Lunch is an extra meal eaten in the field in late afternoon in summer. So, it’s breakfast, dinner, lunch, supper. You go without lunch in the cooler months, but that still leaves three meals a day, so we didn’t starve.
** Dad also died in Abilene 83 1/2 years later. Abilene was never his home for any extended time, but his maternal grandparents and other relatives lived there over a period of more than 100 years.
***for an easy read of the Kennedy era, Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy is recommended. The emphasis on Kennedy’s sex life is perhaps overdone, but it apparently did mark the man significantly and his willingness to take extreme risks. Another good read is the earlier work, Killing Lincoln. I have Killing Jesus on hold at the library. I’m expecting O’Reilly missed badly on this one, but hope he does better than I assume.
****okay, I know Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving earlier in the fall.