January 20, 1961. A blizzard shut down the east coast. After that the Capital was brilliant with sun, snow, ice and the smoke of breath breathed in the low murmurs and intermittent silence of waiting. Something was about to happen. One could feel it, deep down. Expectation is a quality of youth, and on that day neither youth nor its expectations would be disappointed.
The schools were closed; the nuns were mad with it (he was one of their own, after all, or so they told themselves), and the family (my family), devoted and curious, couldn’t get over it. A Catholic, and not just any Catholic, but an Irish Catholic, baptized and confirmed, was about to take the oath of office, was about to occupy the Oval Office, was about to be President. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints be praised, roads risin’ to greet ya’, and all that other lucky charms stuff.
– He’s such a handsome young man, Aunt Flo said.
– With such a pretty wife, Uncle Bill said.
And it was true. His face. Her face. They were like the faces we’d seen on television or in the movies, the faces of those who are somehow different, special, elevated, made more than human, large and impressive on silver screens, diamond white, like the ones they call stars, the ones with the shining-thing, the ones who point the way, who give us something to aim for, harbingers of hope, of better futures, of entry through portals of power where the peace that passes understanding approximates the lofty satisfaction of having arrived.
He began with confidence. The accent was particular to the man, still new, fresh, different, but familiar too. His hair was perfect, as was the look, the tone, urgent, but controlled, the relaxed power of a demi-god speaking to a country he deigned to serve, to lead, to move, to protect and defend, speaking to a world he hoped to change.
It was a moment. No, it was THE moment when the respective vectors of substance and celebrity met, crossed and moved on. It was the moment when a culture that had favored competence over celebrity began to wane and a culture, this culture, that favors celebrity over substance began to wax, in the ascendant, rising, billowing out, so that now, years on, it lolls about, overstuffed and bloated with the mediocrities who somehow managed to slap their faces on to some screen, broadcast wherever, commented upon, and, over time, forgotten.
Today being famous for being famous is sufficient. Many have settled for it. The people have convinced themselves that nothing special is something special, that mediocrity is excellence, that the chimeras craved are more than passing distractions, that it really does matter whether some girl from a boy band gets sober, that it really does matter when former child stars behave badly.
– “Gotta’ go,” she said. “The Kardashians are on and I’m taping Honey Boo Boo.”
– “Be back soon,” he said. “I gotta’ see who who’s getting voted off.”
– “Voted off what?”
– “I dunno’.”
50 years on. One of those round numbers that require one to focus the otherwise pale light of memory on an event that has become a milestone.
50 years on. An anniversary with its own identity. For married couples the element is gold and the precious metal corresponds to whatever is precious in longevity, loyalty and love. For the departed of whom this article addresses, the element remains the grainy film stock that ran through Abe Zapruder’s 8mm camera.
50 years on since Love Field, Elm and Houston, the sixth floor window, the grassy knoll, Parkland Hospital, Jack Ruby, Earl Warren, LBJ and the unraveling that has torn to tatters the fabric of post-World War II certitude concerning American Triumphalism.
The litany begins with Vietnam and need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. Suffice it to say Johnson lied. Suffice it to say Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Suffice it to say Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeldt, and Wolfowitz lied. Suffice it to say that the people lost the most precious asset of all, the lives of bright-eyed, well-intended, faithful, willing, young people who had no reason not to believe the lies told by those who survived it all, with fortunes intact, entitlements assured.
The above renders the average citizen enervated by the crisis of wanting to love one’s country while being incapable of wholly trusting the government that ostensibly governs one’s country.
The Greatest Generation white knuckled their devotion to a government that wouldn’t deceive them, even as it deceived them. This writer’s generation caused and endured the upheavals of a time when one could no longer believe what had been told. The skepticism was suspect. It ran a little pink. To be deaf, dumb, blind and obedient was to be patriotic and good; to see, to listen, to question, to refuse was to be traitorous and bad. The natural order of youth’s separation from parental influence was played out over the roiling air of a canyon made impassable by the irreconcilable points of view. We all shouted charges and counter-charges from opposite walls. We all demanded black and white responses to complex issues that could not be broached. Demographics contributed to the perfect storm. And looking back, 50 years on, the fault did not lie with either member of either generation. The fault lay with the powerful who told lies, committed fraud, and got away with it.
Three years, a thousand days, a time for Arthurian myth, Camelot, Lerner & Lowe and the musical stylings of Burton, Goulet and Andrews. The people bounced from the Bay of Pigs to Jackie’s tour of the White House to Khrushchev in Vienna to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Peace Corps to integration on the steps of southern haunts to a time of astronauts and a race to the moon. It was a troubled time, but it was a good time, too. When competence failed, if it failed, or appeared to fail, there was enough star power resident in the west wing to keep the administration on course in its conquest of New Frontiers.
At the time, this writer was 13. In the eighth grade, Row 7 seat 2. The nun was old, angry, huge, and didn’t trust anybody over the age of reason, a regular Barbarossa from the Sisters of the Black Forest, replete with the old clichés: autocratic, punitive, with just enough Northern European anxiety to put some juice behind the switch.
It was a Friday. Sunny but cool. Two hours to go. The weekend was nigh. Time to float, duck, hide in plain sight and wait for the bell.
Mike M. was poking Becky L. with a Bic pen. Karol W. was handing out the paper for Friday afternoon art class. This writer remembers reading a paperback of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, looking for and unable to find the scary parts, when the intercom squawked the call letters for WABC on the AM dial.
Everyone laughed. It must have been a mistake. Maybe the principal had hit the wrong button, or maybe he was cool enough to let some Rock & Roll through the pipes to liberate the inmates on a Friday before a holiday. (Little was it know that this intrusion had nothing to do with liberation; that liberation would come months later in February when we were both captive and in mourning.)
The voice was not familiar, but it was direct, troubled and anxious. It took a moment for it to sink in. The nun gasped and held a kerchief to her lips. She was outside the classroom, then. The students followed, which is to say the classroom became just a room and the relationship between teacher and students, power and no power, evaporated before the final bell. The random terribleness of an unsafe world had popped the fictive bubble of the classroom with its hierarchy, benefits and abuse. She was no longer the teacher and the children no longer the students. Everyone who had heard the news at the same time, in the same place. People who had heard the same thing that everyone would hear and would remember forever, because people tend to remember what happens when one world ends and another begins, when past, present and future adopt a new point of reference, when something so immense and so far away has the power to break a small heart, here and now, because the kind of sadness that welled up on the edge of that tragedy required neither intimacy nor blood nor even love to underwrite the loss.
50 years on and are the people any better off than those in 1963? In some ways many are and in some ways many are not, and if the question itself is too difficult to ponder, there’s always the TV or the net or an iPad somewhere to keep the minds otherwise engaged.
50 years on and the photos and film footage lift the spirit with recognition and depress the spirit with a sense of loss, of missed opportunities, of alternative histories.
JFK wasn’t a god, a demi-god or a star. He was just a human being, mortal, gifted and flawed, a mixed bag like the every single individual. In his favor, one ponders, how each subsequent President would have handled the Cuban Missile Crisis and suspect that not one of them would have withstood the Joint Chiefs’ calls for invasion and the consequential war that would have rendered moot everything since October ’62.
In his favor, it is remembered that when he asked Americans to give something bigger than just watching, many Americans got up, turned off the TV and did what could be done. In his favor he had a presence and a voice and a means of communicating to the hearts and minds of his countrymen that often transcended the obstacles and disagreements inherent in any proposal. In his favor, he was different, special, charismatic in the biblical sense of the word. And he was also very young. One can only surmise and wonder what the future would have been had the past been different. But alas, the world will never know. Such are the limitations of humanity caught in the matrix of time and space, of cause and effect.
50 years on and time remakes the legend of one who would have preferred to be man. Sometimes, this writer’s imagines him in his 70’s or 80’s, having been allowed to grow old, sitting in a rocker on a porch in Hyannisport with his wife and children and their children nearby. The wind off the water brushes his hair, still thick and full, white and rust with the Irish coloring; his hooded eyes, set and bright in the well-proportioned face look out on the ocean and the horizon and the sail boats that are beautiful and, unfortunately, no longer there.
Written by Michael Hogan