Some, by Marilyn J. Rowland
My first reaction was to look at my best friend, across the room from me in eleventh-grade Honors English class and laugh, and even 50 years later, I cannot explain that laugh. It wasn’t really nervous laughter—but it wasn’t joyful laughter either. Maybe it was just my body’s way of expressing shock and disbelief. Maybe I thought it was a bad joke.
It was November 22, 1963, and the principal had just announced over the loud speaker that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. It was the last class of the day. School ended at 2:20 PM, before the official announcement of Kennedy’s death, so the announcement must have been simply that, that Kennedy was shot, and seriously injured, but not that that he was dead. We were dismissed to go home to our parents.
I met my brother, a ninth-grader who attended school in the adjacent building for 9th and 10th grade, and we walked home together, in tears, I think. We often walked to and from school together, as I recall, and we often sang. I remember singing “When You Lift Your Eyes and see the sun arisin’ on that far horizon, early in the morning,” a Kingston Trio song, frequently.
We didn’t sing that day. School was about a mile from home, and when we arrived home, both my parents were together, both crying, as I recall. My mother was a housewife back then, and my father worked at home as an editor and indexer of books, a vocation I took up in high school and continue to this day.
My father had been a Nixon supporter in the election—we had worn “I Like Ike” buttons in the previous election, had watched the Checkers speech together, and, as a family, fully supported Nixon. I remember thinking Nixon was the better looking candidate during the debates. Just goes to show you how political beliefs can alter perception. I remember saying ridiculous things like “If Kennedy is elected, I’m moving to Russia!” (I think Rush Limbaugh said something similar about moving to Costa Rica if the health care bill passed, and he didn’t move either.)
I found out, on November 22, 1963, that my mother had always been a Democrat—she just didn’t voice her opinions in those days. As for the rest of us, we were all won over by the Kennedy eloquence, charm, idealism, humor, and youthful exuberance. Camelot, but without the overt infidelity. Yes, he was an imperfect president and had a flawed presidency (I also recall living in fear of nuclear annihilation), but he has a profound influence on the nation and the world.
My political allegiance changed immediately, and I have been a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, ever since. I was particularly inspired by Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps and vowed that day, when I was 14, to join. I majored in International Relations in college, in Washington DC, but, when I graduated in the tumultuous year of 1968, I joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps instead, feeling that we had a lot of problems here at home to solve. The cruel war was raging, and I felt I was up to my ears in inappropriate foreign policy.
I was in VISTA in 1968, living in a one-room schoolhouse that had been converted to a house, in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the 1968 election. My roommate was a Native American from California. Our rent was $35 a month. We stayed up half the night waiting to find out if Humphrey had beat Nixon. He didn’t. So much had changed since the election of 1960.
In 1977, we were living in Memphis, TN. I had gotten a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning in at what is now the University of Memphis and was working in Memphis’ Community Development Department, trying to make lives better in low-income neighborhoods. Part of Kennedy’s personal legacy to me. “Ask not.”
The radio was on at the office that hot day August day in Memphis when Elvis Presley died. I laughed then too, but I know why. Though Elvis was only 42 when he died, younger even than Kennedy, who was 46 when he died, Elvis was already far past his prime, no longer active in the music industry. Though we called the same city home, I felt no loss. It wasn’t until at least a dozen years later when we returned to Memphis for a visit that we toured Presley’s home, Graceland. It was only then that I appreciated everything Elvis had accomplished.
JFK and I also had places in common: the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, where he had a back operation in 1954 and I had back surgery in 1961; American University in Washington DC, where I majored in International Relations, and he gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency, initiating negotiations with the Soviet Union on a nuclear test ban treaty; and, of course, Cape Cod.
I had a babysitting job on the evening of November 22, 1963, and dressed in a gray wood pleated skirt that I remember vividly and black sweater (this was clearly back in the day when women, even teenaged girls, rarely wore pants). I think they paid me more than the usual 50 cents an hour that night.
I remember thinking that our neighbors were insensitive to go out on the evening of the day the president was shot, but apparently their event had been planned for some time. (Years later, I went out on the evening of the 9/11 terrorist events, for a chamber music rehearsal. I do understand.)
I was a little insensitive myself. When I heard of all the condolence messages sent to Jacqueline, I thought, “what about us, the American people? We are grieving too.”
And we still are, in many ways. Watching all the Kennedy stories and documentaries on television this week is still difficult. It still seems like only yesterday.