Shortly after Kennedy died, people begin saying “We will always remember where we were when we heard the president was dead.” I suppose my grandparents generation the “where was I when it happened” event was Pearl Harbor. For my parents and I it was JFK assassination or perhaps for my generation that was either RFK, MLK or the moon landing that classified as the “where were you” event. We have to suppose that 9/11 is the latest in a series of these life-changing historical moments.
I was in the third grade in James E Robert School IPS #97. Every year the PTA had a fundraiser cookie sale where the kids would sell cookies to raise money for the PTA that then purchased equipment needed by the school. Most of it was wheelchairs. After each annual cookie sale the PTA would throw away “Thank You Party” for all the students. My mom was the PTA room mother for the third grade. My teacher was the much beloved Clara Rose Holmes. Someone came into the room and talk to one of the other adults either my mom or the teacher and it was obvious they were pretty upset about something. There were probably other parents there is room mothers for the other classrooms that day. We didn’t have a TV set in any of the rooms but we had a radio and someone turned it on. The adults were all intensely listening to the news reports.
At one point the kids were told that the president “got shot in Dallas”. I thought he had been given an injection of some kind. I couldn’t figure out why he had to go all the way to Dallas Texas just to get an inoculation. “Don’t they have doctors in Washington DC that could have given him a shot?” At some point someone finally explained to me he was shot with a gun and eventually confirmation came through that he really was dead.
Mom had brought me up to be a political junkie. We watched The Today Show every morning religiously. It was a practice she continued to her final days. She was watching The Today Show on 9/11 and woke me up shortly after the first plane hit. I was watching in time to see the second one hit live. Anyway back to ’63… We were lifelong Democrats and Catholic as well so Kennedy’s election was a big deal in our house. She had made sure even at age 6 or so that I appreciated the significance of a Catholic president. I remember the stern look on her face watching The Today Show during the Cuban missile crisis. I distinctly remember asking “Mommy what is a blockade?” So although I was taking lots of cues from her reaction to the days events, I’d like to think of myself as being a reasonably politically savvy little eight-year-old who knew that this was a very big deal.
Being big fans of the Kennedy family and people who appreciate good comedy, we had a copy of the best-selling comedy album “The First Family” by comedian Vaughn Meader in which a comedy troupe put on sketches with spot on impersonations of the Kennedy family. My favorite little clip from the album was an argument over toys used in the Kennedy bathtub. They included an entire flotilla of battleships, submarines, cruisers, and a rubber duck belonging to the president. Another favorite clip simply said “Go to the polls and vote. Vote for the Kennedy of your choice but to vote!”
Rather than ride the bus home that day, mom drove me home. I remember as we got in the car I said to her “I guess we can go home and throw away the First Family Album. Nobody will ever want to laugh about the president again.”
Looking back on those sketches 50 years later I guess I can laugh a little bit and I’m not alone. A quick search of Amazon.com shows that last year they released a 50th anniversary edition of the album. I actually bought it on CD a few years ago from Amazon along with some other vintage comedy items like Spike Jones and Alan Sherman.
Being a huge fan of the American space program also may be an even bigger fan of Kennedy and his pledge to get us to the moon. It always sort of pissed me off that the plaques on the lunar modules at the name Richard Nixon on them. All of the things I would’ve liked Kennedy to live to do, my biggest sorrow is that he did not live to see the moon landing pledge fulfilled.
I watched TV continuously with my mom over the next several days. I saw Oswald shot live on TV. I saw the famous salute by John John. I watched it all. I did think it was a little bit arrogant that the torch they let at his gravesite was called “Eternal Flame”. Both the scientist in the theologian in me take the word “eternal” quite literally. The sci-fi fan in me hopes that someday we colonize other worlds. If that dream comes true it will be because Kennedy put us on the first step of that journey. That will be his eternal legacy. Not some propane torch buried in the ground.