I remember that day as if it were just a week ago, not 51 years. It was my father’s birthday. He was 47 years old. We always had a nice birthday party for him, usually just the family, but a nice party with presents and his favorite food.
That year was different. I found out at school, just as we were leaving, that the president was dead. Our teacher had been crying up front in the classroom for a couple of hours. We didn’t think much of it, she was odd.
When she told us, I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. I was 11. I had stayed up all night the night that JFK won the election and I was a devotee of everything he did. I was so upset, I cussed in school. I got away with it that time.
I went home and everyone was huddled around the TV, black and white with one channel. We saw it all and we saw Walter Conkrite cry. We listened to it over and over and over. They didn’t show the horrible tapes where you can see his head getting blown out all over the back of the car and Jackie trying to pick up his brains. We didn’t see that until much later.
My family was full of militant Democrats. My dad was a union man and they all remembered FDR and how he saved them from sure starvation. They were Democrats for life. We were all so sad, we didn’t think we could be sadder. But we could, when we saw his son salute the coffin as his father’s body passed by him.
The days that Kennedy was in office were like no other I can remember. Everyone was hopeful, we had a bright future, things were getting done. Americans were pulling together, making the world a better place and we had this amazing first family to show how wonderful life could be. And then it ended with blood all over a car and a caring man gone. And our hopes went with him. America died that day.
No matter the uniqueness of the presidents that have followed him, even Barack Obama who, as the first African-American president brought amazing hope into office, nobody has been able to match what America felt while Kennedy was president. We walked around in a kind of reflected glow, knowing that we had at our helm a man of charm, integrity and purpose. He was handsome, smart and determined. We knew we were all glad to be Americans with him as president.
It was with real grief that I watched his funeral at the age of 11. I have a scrapbook full of the headlines of that week, full of pictures. I had never felt that much grief before, not even at the death of my grandfather. It was as if the whole country was sobbing in unison. As if we knew we were never going to feel that way again about a president, about any leader. We had lost someone but more importantly something that would never come back.
And then, on June 6, 1968, I awoke to my radio telling of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. I was frozen. I remember going to school that day, this time high school. We were almost done for the year. It was then, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy that I lost faith in America. I lost faith that we could protect any of our great men, the ones we needed to show us how to live. I just lost faith. And I was 16 years old. Can you imagine? Feeling your life was forever changed at the age of 16?
I was always politically active, from the age of 11. I stuffed envelopes, handed out pamphlets, bumper stickers and anything else I could for LBJ. I stood at the mall, us on one side, the Goldwater people on the other and gave out literature. I worked for a woman running for Congress and I campaigned for our Senator, Paul Douglas. I was young to be so involved, but I loved every minute of it. I met our governor, Otto Kerner and I shook his hand. I had an amazing year then, after JFK’s death, before I lost faith, before I realized that whatever had been going to happen, was now over.
And so now, on the 51st anniversary of his death, I hope JFK knows what he meant to us. He meant everything.