Of Many Things

Gram and I had an annual ritual, one we enacted every summer from the time I was 4 or 5 to the time I was 10 or 11. It rarely varied, though sometimes my younger brother would join us. On what was usually a fine, bright blue day in July or August, we would set out from my grandmother’s home in Hyannis, Mass., and undertake “the grand tour,” as she called it, a drive through next-door Hyannisport.

Proceeding at parade-pace in her two-door, bright orange Buick Skylark, Gram would point out the various sites frequented by “The President”: the compound, the country club, the post office. Almost 15 years after his death, Gram’s unqualified reference to “The President”—with a capital T and a capital P—was always understood to mean John F. Kennedy.

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We would then pick up the pace a bit and head across the way to the Kennedy Memorial, a modest fountain and flag on a hill overlooking Barnstable Harbor. There I would walk round the fountain, reading aloud each of the words inscribed in its base: “It is my firm belief that this nation should sail and not lie still in the harbor.” At this point, Gram invariably shed a tear and then we’d make our way to the local Friendly’s for a grilled cheese and Coke, or, in Gram’s case, a Sanka with half a Saccharin tablet.

Throughout the meal, I would pepper her with questions: Had she ever seen The President? No, but she frequently saw other members of the The Family—likewise always capitalized—at Mass at nearby Saint Francis Xavier Church, where Gram was a parishioner. Did any of them still live at the compound? Mrs. Rose Kennedy and a few others; but it’s not the same, Gram would say.

During one of these lunches, once I was old enough to understand, I asked Gram where she was when The President died. “In the hospital,” she said. “I’d gone in for an operation. My dear friend Mrs. Sullivan was visiting me when we heard the news. Mr. Cronkite made the announcement and then Mrs. Sullivan said, in a nasty tone, ‘Well, I guess that’s the end of the Kennedy dynasty.’ I never spoke to her again.” A long silence followed. “That was a terrible day,” Gram added.

Indeed it was. I don’t know from my own experience, of course; The President died nine years before I was born. But I know it was a terrible day. Over the years, when I’ve asked those who are old enough where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, they all answer in the same way. First, they sigh and then briefly look away at the ceiling or the floor. It’s almost as if they are looking outside of themselves to find the answer, as if the memory of that terrible day belongs to someone else. I’ve seen that before. It’s one way people relate to traumatic events: they keep their distance.

Fifty years have now passed. That’s quite a distance. And yet we still live with the memory of those events in Dallas, even if it’s only a memory of other peoples’ memories. As painful as it is, it’s worth revisiting that terrible day, if only in order to better understand, not what happened in Dallas, but what happened to us. Perhaps we were lied to, perhaps we weren’t; the debate still rages.

What concerns us more, I suggest, what has affected us more than any actual or potential lie, is the myth, the myth of who he was, of who we were; the very tale Gram retold every summer. “For the great enemy of the truth,” The President himself once said, “is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

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Bill Mazzella
4 years 6 months ago
It was a milestone when I realized that at 18 Mickey Mantle and I were about the same age. Now a Editor In-Chief of America who was not alive when Kennedy was president. Ditto for the second Vatican Council. Same for the Patriarch Joseph Kennedy. Whose words I remember most when advisors tried to dissuade him from demanding that Bobbie become Attorney General. "Thank you very much. But Bobbie will be Attorney General." And to think, Matt, that you never saw DiMaggio play. It was a sad but majestic day when Jackie and the leaders of the world marched up Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a loss for the nation. More so for Catholics. Especially for the Irish. Except for Spellman. The end of Camelot. The end of style in the White House. All the demythologizing and criticism of later years could not take away from the magic of those years. Of Camelot. And Jackie.
Edward Thiery
4 years 6 months ago
A Child of the Kennedy Era The first election in which I was old enough to vote was the presidential race on November 8, 1960, when I was 23, in my second year at John Carroll University. John F. Kennedy ran against Richard M. Nixon, and for me the choice was clear. JFK had more charm, culture, and humanity in his little finger than Nixon or anyone else had in his entire body. He was pure inspiration for a young man recently out of the Air Force and coming of age with his personal renaissance during the early second half of the century. He brought out the best in people in general and me in particular. Because of him, after graduation from college I went to work for the federal government out of idealism and patriotism. (Unfortunately, I quickly learned that not everyone else was so guided.) It was a time of intellectual growth, and he was like part of my Jesuit education. His speeches were challenging, selfless, and inspiring. We need only remember his Inaugural Address of January 20, 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; his establishment of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961; and his “Man on the Moon” Challenge of May 25, 1961. He was not always right, as the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 17 – 19, 1961, proved, but, contrary to what many people felt, I was not worried about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962; I knew that we would prevail. His involvement of our troops – “advisors” – in Indochina was probably his biggest mistake. It mattered not that he was alleged to have an affair with Marilyn Monroe. This was not inspiring, but there was a tacit, common decency, and the media and the public of that time did not wallow in salacious details and speculation as they do today. What mattered was the beautiful, educated couple with young kids in the White House and Camelot. Our Nation could be better. He was intellectual, with none of that irrelevant, maudlin Jesus talk that seems important to much of today’s electorate. He was dedicated to scientific study, research, and development, and it is highly improbable that he would have considered creationism worthy of inclusion as a counterpoint to evolution in classrooms. His Catholicism was private. When he was killed, much of what was good and beautiful in America died with him, and the Nation has never regained those halcyon days. I wept. I still rue our loss. Edward F. Thiery Rio de Janeiro November 2013
Stanley Kopacz
4 years 6 months ago
Who else, in a time of Cold War under the threat of nuclear annihilation, would start a Peace Corps? Or an effort to put a man on the moon? Perhaps the image of that presidency has been tarnished in many ways but back then, America was ALIVE.

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