It’s My Turn
My first memory of JFK was seeing him on television, handsome as a movie star with a wife as pretty as he was handsome. I recall the media praising him on one hand and continually printing and voicing, “If he were to win he would be the first Catholic President of the United States.” I wondered what religion had to do with politics.
A Harvard grad, a war hero, a member of a large Irish family, his vita gave everyone something with which to identify or use as a role model. That Boston inflection in his voice made him sound like every other Bostonian which was odd to lifelong non-Bostonians. How many times did we hear imitations of him with his flat “a”: ‘Park the car and Harvard Yard?’ He possessed the gift of gab, a glint of mischief in his smile and the high level of intelligence that was expected of Kennedy men. He was privy to his father’s businesses, fortune, public service and as the public discovered later on, his playboy personal life.
As a college student, I was immediately smitten by his looks, intelligence and sense of humor. He was unlike every other candidate I had seen in my lifetime. His youth was as seductive as his smile. What a grand representative couple for our country he and his wife would be. They would charm the entire world. I signed up to work for JFK and received the Kennedy-Johnson button I keep to this day.
I first saw JFK in person as I stood in a crowd in Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue and Glenwood Road in front of Rexall Drugs. His limo passed by with LBJ’s body jutting from one side of the limo rear window while JFK did likewise on the opposite side. They must have passed at thirty mph; and, all I could see was their torsos up to their faces to which make-up had obviously been over-applied.
I was enthralled at the sight of the young Kennedy couple on “Person to Person.” I couldn’t wait for this dynamic leader, so comfortable in his skin, to assume his position as role model for our country. Did it help that the media was kinder and gentler to our politicians in the early 60’s? It surely did. If they were as aggressive then as they are now, JFK may never have even been a candidate for the presidency.
After his election, many in America and elsewhere marveled at his picture perfect family, mourned with them at the death of their son, Patrick, sweated with him during the Cuban missile crisis, questioned the Domino Theory and couldn’t wait to hear his next speech whether from here or from places to which he traveled. He enlisted our help asking what we could do for our country.
In May, 1963, my family received two tickets to JFK’s Birthday Ball at Madison Square Garden from the Kings County Trust Company. My grandfather was one of their first depositors. Then, banks gave out tickets annually to special events in New York City as gifts to their clients. Then, banks literally wined and dined their customers. Now, depositors barely get interest.
It was raining the night of May 19, 1963, JFK’s 46th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. That his true birthday was May 29, mattered not. My mother and I sat no more than twelve rows from the President and his entourage. Our seats were closer to the circular stage than were the President’s. Thus, I recall looking to my left to ogle him and Bobby throughout the performances: Some entertainers on the bill were Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Henry Fonda, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe who performed her rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” My mother commented that Monroe must have been sewn into the skin-tight flesh colored gown that forced her to take baby steps to the microphone. It was later reported she was. After she finished she invited everyone to sing and sing we did. The evening was electric. I couldn’t believe I was there. It was the best birthday I have ever had. You see, my birthday is also on May 29.
It was on a Friday, the assassination. I was at home doing homework on my weekly Friday off from college classes when I received a phone call from my friend, Marie, who worked for Sperry Gyroscope on the Island. It was some time past noon when she called to tell me the President was shot. I turned on TV which still had not reported the tragedy. Marie told me she was privy to the horrible news immediately because her job came with government high clearance. I refused to believe the news she conveyed, not for long.
I read and re-read the Warren Commission Report. I collected “Life,” and “Look” magazines, any print media that paid JFK tribute. There was Jackie’s blood-stained suit and pill box hat, John-John saluting, Jackie walking between Bobby and Ted following the caisson and the riderless white steed, a blur. The country was in mourning with the exception of those who knew the real story behind the assassination. Some still conjecture that organized crime was paying the Kennedys back for the rough going Bobby gave them as Attorney General. Others speculate that forces from Cuba were retaliating for our warring dealings with their country. Very few people believed the single killer theory promulgated by the Warren Commission.
November 22 1963 is one of those days where people knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard JFK was killed. For me, his murder is on my list of tragedies right up there with the death of my father. No one can quantify the unfulfilled potential of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Most probably he would have served a second term. Most probably, he would have approved of LBJ’s contributions to America by ending the Viet Nam war and passing his Great Society initiatives into law.
As the 47th anniversary of JFK’s assassination draws near those of us who are old enough reflect upon the significance of November 22, personally and historically, can pause and take the opportunity to mourn one more time.