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Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK remembered, 50 years on

Jack with best friend Lem Billings
Jack (left) with best friend Lem Billings in France, 1937
It's not very often you remember EXACTLY what you were doing almost to the moment 50 years ago when something happened. For those of us old enough to remember, November 22, 1963 was such a time. I have always marked the assassination date of JFK as the end of my early childhood. I was 7 and 2 months when it happened. And yes, I remember that "like it was yesterday." Although I do have a definite memory from 1958 of my mother telling me the evening of the Chicago parochial school fire, to pray for nearly 100 teachers and school children who died, I was kept away from graphic images, just after the event. But nothing was shielded from us in '63 when I was in 2nd grade.

We were in the middle of a lesson in the early afternoon at St. Francis School, in Allentown, Pa. Our nun, Sister Angelita, was called out into the hall, something very unusual, and sister came back in and informed us, rather excitedly, that "Father Walters was listening to the radio in the rectory, and heard that the president was shot in Dallas, we don't know how bad it is yet, let's pray." I can remember thinking: What the heck is he doing in Dallas? So we all did pray, and shortly thereafter we were given our customary bathroom break. We marched in silence upstairs to the 2nd floor to "do our business" and we were each lost in our own thoughts on the way back down to our classroom too. Even at a time like that normal decorum was held. I don't remember anyone crying at that time, we got the news. We were all pretty much in shock that such a thing like that could happen. If there were tears, there certainly no wailing and moaning. Everyone absorbed it best they could.

Shortly thereafter, we were assembled in the school chapel (which had until the year before served as the parish church) and told of Kennedy's death. We said more prayers, and were released home. We were told that priests had gone to Parkland Hospital and the President had been given last rites, which to us Catholic children was a comfort. One of the Dallas priests had released the news of his death to the news media, and naturally other official announcements had taken place. We were released close to our normal time of day, as after the assembly it made no sense to go back to class. Again, we pretty much were walked in silence down to the corner as usual where we were released, each with our own thoughts, either to walk home by ourselves, or with mom, if our mothers if they were there to pick us up.

I remember asking my mother at home: Do we have a president now? And she thought a moment and told me Johnson was now president. I do remember that night as I was lying down to bed thinking of poor Caroline and John, Jr. I felt terrible they didn't have a dad anymore. All that weekend, apart from me going to church on Saturday to light a candle, and Sunday to Mass, we were GLUED to the TV. I DO remember seeing Oswald get shot on TV, I called out to my mom "Oswald's been shot." Frankly, I can't say I was glad he was shot, but I was quite relieved he was. Let's say at age 7, I was not "nuanced."

I am quite sure my interest in history was kindled with his assassination. His biographies were among the first I read. And frankly, I had smelled a rat regards the hagiography that had been painted about him by the time I was age 13. What exactly did he mean when he was quoted as saying in "The Making of the President" about being glad the republicans had made a "tactical mistake by releasing their vote counts too soon" downstate in Illinois. I remember thinking "if everything's on the up and up, why would that matter when the votes from various precincts came in if they were all going to be counted in the end?" I knew there were gaps and cover ups and inconsistencies re: the timeline of his early years. They'd concealed he'd ALWAYS been prone to being a sickly child, and frankly he'd had a bad back from early childhood, and there was the lie re: him spending a year in England going to the London School of Economics. In later years the book "The Search for JFK" came out by a brother/sister pair, the Blairs, and they did extensive research and brought the truth to light where the Kennedy family had painted the myths about Jack and the adoring media just didn't look too closely at the inconsistencies. The press had long known of JFK's womanizing, and the Judith Exner story came out about that same time in the early 70s, then EVERYONE had to admit what had once been a "gentleman's agreement" couldn't be covered up anymore. And the "Camelot myth" was passed on by the liberal press. NOT his fault, OR Jackie Kennedy's for that matter. He didn't ask to be made a tin hero. The administration was never called "Camelot" when it was happening. That business was promulgated when shortly after his death she'd given an interview with a newsman she'd trusted. She mentioned in passing that before they went to bed, her husband often liked to listen to musical theatre records, and that Camelot, then playing on Broadway was a favorite. So the media from ever there on beat the "Camelot" myth to death.

But for all his flaws, he also had strengths. Basic Optimism. The space program. Love of Country. Anti-communism. A great sense of humor. NONE of those qualities shared by the present occupant in the White House, in my opinion.

I've since confirmed with many people that for them too, who were old enough, they also demarcated time between pre and post assassination. So it wasn't just my imagination. I always sigh a bit when I watch episodes of MAD MEN. They caught the period so well. I get a bit frustrated that people say "Oh, things would be so different had he lived." I highly doubt that, other than, of course, for the Kennedy family. Some things, no doubt would likely be different. I question whether or not Bobby would have been shot, for instance, and certainly Mary Jo Kopechne would have lived too, because Ted wouldn't have been driving her around over a bridge, as the "reunion" had been held for the office girls who worked Bobby's campaign a year after he was shot. But as far as the larger world stage and events that transpired, I don't see that things would have been radically different in the long scheme of things. I'm glad I've never found out if he would have championed abortion on demand as did Ted. I'm glad I never saw that day.

The Vietnam War was just starting to heat up under Kennedy. He'd have continued it, I'm quite sure, given he was strongly anti-Communist and didn't want them taking over eastern Asia like they had eastern Europe. JFK was very much a cold warrior. Had he won re-election, the crowds would have likely yelled "hey, hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" The birth control pill, and the loose sexual mores and shocking rise in unwed motherhood and later abortion on demand still would have likely happened. Johnson's so-called "War on Poverty" although well meant at the time I'm sure, had the unintended effect of making dad in the home not a necessity in too many minds, as single motherhood was relatively monetarily rewarded, which combined with sexual revolution and the pill made dear old dad superfluous. The war on teachers being able to mention God or morals in public schools had already started in '62 when the Supreme Court said you couldn't have prayer in public school. The drug culture would have happened. Just a few short months after the assassination, the Beatles radically did change to course of popular music headlong into Rock and Roll. Although rock started in '55 with Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beatles really supplanted any chance of the other genres like "standards" being the most popular music. Drugs and hippies came in big time after that, and popular culture became rather more crude and crass. Being a "drama queen" became tolerated behavior in public mores. And if you tried to hold to an older standard of grace and courtesy, you just weren't hip and "cool." Nat King Cole would have been embarrassed by the gang banger culture perpetrated by some "artists" today. I can't imagine Arlene Francis doing "Survivor" any more than I could have imagined Jackie Kennedy going out in ratty jeans.

One last note: You conspiracy people are annoying. Give it up. Face it. ANY president, just by nature of the job probably has a lot of people out there who want him dead. So all this crap about the Mafia, etc. or Oswald being a mere set up patsy really doesn't bear out. Oswald shot Kennedy as his lone assassin. End of. The forensics and science all back it up. So give it up already. Rest in peace, JFK.
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