Today commemorates the 46th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Kennedy days have been described as Camelot. I understand that term was one of expectation and anticipation based upon the charm and beauty of John and Jacqueline. The press kept secrets in those days, so we didn’t know about the marital problems and infidelity, the details of poor political decisions, or the jealousies amongst the Washington insiders. Americans had lots to be concerned about – the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the growing tension between the USSR and the USA. Probably the least thing we needed to worry about was our the president-elect’s religious background, but worried we were until worsening world events erased that concern. Today, I am thankful I live in a nation that managed to rebound from the challenges our nation faced at that time. Even as a young adolescent, I felt the impact of those years. I wish I had recorded my feelings at the time, but with the advantage of maturity, I now look back at my reactions to a few events that occurred nearly 50 years ago.
I was a seventh-grader when John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. I have fleeting memories of the election, including the TV debate between JFK and Richard Nixon and the controversy about the Kennedy’s Catholicism. I can’t remember the sources of my political information, but for some reason I worried about having a Catholic president. I don’t understand why I possessed such a prejudice because my favorite neighbors were Catholic, and they were kind and generous people. Perhaps I overheard relatives debating the issue or watched news stories on TV. Nevertheless, I sensed that many were nervous about putting a Catholic in the White House.
Not long after the election determined Jack Kennedy as the new president, I wandered across the fields separating the junior high and the elementary schools to visit Mr. Martin, my 5th grade teacher. I’m not sure why I decided to drop by his classroom because he was NOT one of my favorites. I actually think he was a good teacher as he expected the best behavior and academic performance from his students. He was a dynamic instructor who kept us focused AND laughing, but he was also very strict. Mr. Martin didn’t have a lot of patience with chatterboxes, and I was a notorious chatterbox; consequently, I didn’t think he liked me all that much.
Mr. Martin was also a strong Catholic who contributed so much to his religious community, and he sometimes talked of his activities. When I walked into his classroom, I was not surprised to see a large portrait of the president-elect on the front bulletin board. For whatever reason, I immediately thought about the ethical guidelines banning political endorsements of candidates; consequently, this smart-mouth seventh grader commented in a 12-year-old, know-it-all voice, “I hope you didn’t put up that picture until AFTER the election!”
Irritated, Mr. Martin scolded and reassured me that he did not post it prematurely. For a few more minutes, we discussed the Kennedy election, and I made negative comments, adding a dour prediction of the man’s future that I won’t ever repeat or record. That embarrassing exchange is lodged in my memory, and I am still ashamed of both my attitude and my criticisms. I didn’t know anything but acted as if I knew it all. Pathetic!
Over the next three years, I lived through the memorable Kennedy years as a young teenager. Some of my remembrances center upon the President and his first lady. It was impossible not to admire Jackie’s classy style and beauty. Like the rest of the world, I followed what Mrs. Kennedy wore in Washington or Paris. Even at age 14, I copied her style, pill-box hat, spike heels, and all! (I didn’t quite pull it off!)
I also lived through the scary times of the Kennedy administration. The most frightening was the Cuban Missile Crisis. When I think of that time, I picture myself in an LDS Seminary class at Alameda Jr. High as a 9th grader. Brother Empey was our instructor, and we were studying the Book of Mormon. We read about modern times as described in ancient scriptures, and I knew I was witnessing the fulfillment of prophesy. I remember being terrified at times, wondering, “Is this it? Is this the end?” During those few days in October, it has been said that the whole world held its breath. Cliched as the statement may be, it well describes the mood. It was all that we talked about, read about, and prayed about.
The most poignant memory of the era was November 22, 1963 when the young president was assassinated. Like so many, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the terrifying news. By this time, I was a sophomore in high school and loving life. The frustrations of junior high were behind me, and while the world wasn’t at peace, the fears of the Cold War seemed diminished. And then one Friday morning at Highland High School, I stood at my locker, grabbing books for my next class. Suddenly, unusual chattering rippled through the hallway, and then tears, gasps, and cries. Finally, the news reached me: “President Kennedy has been shot!” Shock! Disbelief! End of the world! No words.
I wanted to leave school. I wanted to go somewhere to pray. I begged Heavenly Father to help our president survive. I so hoped the news was wrong, and he wasn’t injured as badly as was rumored. I wanted to know what happened, and I DIDN’T want to know because every detail made the events true. I was devastated. Our leader was fighting for his life! How could this happen in America? I wanted to wake up and find I’d been caught up in a nightmare, and then breathe again. But no.
For days upon days, the world watched news footage of the shooting, the wait at the hospital while doctors tried to save our president, the grim announcement that he didn’t survive, the manhunt for the suspect, the arrest and murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson, the funeral procession, the lying-in-state, the services, and the eternal flame. Time stopped. For awhile. But then, as it always does, life continued on, and here it is November 22, 2009.