It struck me this morning that my first year students were probably in first grade at the time of the 9/11 attacks. 50 years ago today I was in first grade when Kennedy was shot.
I don’t remember when I learned of his being shot, or of his death. What I do recall is standing in line on the streets of D.C., late into the night, waiting to view Kennedy’s body in state. My father told us that he knew some one who had seen Lincoln’s body in state and he wanted to give us the same kind of historical memory. It was a bitterly cold night, and the new overcoats my mother had gotten us did not match the cold late November chill. I suppose I must have whined about wanting to go home because I remember my mother eventually convincing my father it was just too cold and too late for the children to stay out. I do remember understanding my father’s desire to give us a special memory, and the wonder of having participated in an event of national historical significance.
A few days later, my father took my older siblings to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I wanted to go, but either there was not enough room in the car or my Dad didn’t feel he could look after a small child on top of his other children–I was the youngest. I remember watching the service on tv, and saw a girl on a man’s shoulders in the broadcast, and was certain my father and sister had been captured by the tv coverage. I also remember John-John and Caroline, who were more or less my age, and I felt sorry for them.
Kennedy was, of course, the first president I remember. We had made fun of his accent, mimicking it to hilarious laughter. We enjoyed Vaughn Meader’s album having fun caricaturing the family. Those are joyful memories. The Kennedy family was remote from us, with the aristocratic wife/mother and the funny talking husband/father. But in our imaginations they played touch football on the White House lawn, and they were in many ways “our” first family.
Kennedy, supported by speech-writer Ted Sorensen, was inspirational. A generation asked themselves what they could do for their country. And his was the public voice for the 1960s effort to put a man on the moon within the decade “and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” When I think of Kennedy’s death, I also want to remember the moon landing, an achievement and turning point of far greater import to humanity. After Kennedy’s death, those left behind picked up the torch of his inaugural, lighting the way toward civil rights at home, the moon and beyond in space.