I was in the fifth grade when John Kennedy was murdered. It's not history to me, it's memory: as strange, frightening and sad now as it was then. The assassination wasn’t announced in school that day, but I remember someone telling me that they’d seen the Principal crying (which, when you’re nine years old, is a staggering thing to hear); someone else mentioning that the school flag was at half mast (I knew that had some military meaning, but wasn’t sure what).
On the way home several people informed me the President had been shot, but no one had any details. Had it really happened or was it just the kind of crazy rumor children routinely passed around? If it was true, was he badly hurt? Was he even alive? When I walked into our apartment and saw my father and sister sitting, stunned, in front of the television set, a photo of JFK, with the words May 29, 1917—November 22, 1963 emblazoned below it, filling the screen, the sickening truth was confirmed.
The world stopped then—and we all stayed home, for days, glued to our TVs. (It was the first 24 hour news event and, looking back, we were blessed to have men like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley sifting through the details, instead of the bellowing, bloviating talking heads we have today.) I didn’t see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, but my best friend, Bob Izzo, did—and a group of us gathered around as he described television’s first live murder. The universe had clearly tipped into madness—but the truth is, this wasn’t news to me. That madness had been revealed, in all its lunatic horror, the year before when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the edge of nuclear devastation. The world almost ended then—that’s not hyperbole, that’s fact—but somehow we survived, thanks, in no small part, to a President who refused to listen to war-hungry advisors. Now, a little more than a year later, that President was dead and it seemed as if the world really was ending.
Kennedy was the first President I was ever aware of—I was six when he was elected—and, as a result, he loomed large, like some handsome American demigod, in my young consciousness. We all know now, of course, that he was was far from Deity Status: his many flaws have been repeatedly, and often luridly, catalogued in the years since his death; but JFK was also man of intelligence and wit, passion and wisdom. It’s the tension between the flaws and ideals, the “what was” and the “might have been,” that makes him such an intriguing figure. I’ve read more-than my share of Kennedy books over the years, digested innumerable documentaries, and the fascination continues. How could it not?
©copyright 2013 J.M. DeMatteis