“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative or creation, there is one elementary truth…that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves. too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones’s favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way.
Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it.
Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”
― W.H. Murray The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
November 22, 1963
Fifty-six years ago…that sounds impossible! Still, like most people in my generation, I can pinpoint where I was on this day with uncanny accuracy:
A third-grade student sits in her desk at St. Julian Eymard School in Algiers. The principal interrupts every class, sharing the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy over the intercom. My teacher, Mrs. Boudreaux, looks at us in shock before her face dissolves into tears. Why are all the teachers rushing into the hallway crying, holding on to each other? What is a President; who is this man Kennedy? As an eight-year old, I instinctively feel this is a meaningful occasion, although I haven’t the knowledge to understand why.
As my brothers and I walk the six blocks to our house, every door we pass is open in this warm Louisiana November. Black and white images from impossibly small television sets repeatedly flash images of Kennedy as a young Naval lieutenant, surrounded by his crew, aboard the PT-109. Kennedy being sworn into office. Kennedy laughing, holding hands with his young son John, as they walked to church. Kennedy holding his infant daughter Caroline. A smiling Jackie Kennedy in her signature pillbox hat, riding in an open limousine with her husband. And then, a bloodstained pink suit captures the nation’s attention as Jackie stands next to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, as he takes the oath of office. These confusing images only made sense to me as I got older.
I turn to my older brother to ask what a President is. He is in fifth grade, so he is ever-so-much wiser. He explains in words that are still beyond my comprehension, but he ends by saying this President, this man, this father, was shot by a gun. He was killed today. He would not be going home to his children. That a father could leave his young daughter and son…this is what I cannot quite wrap my head around.
“You think it hurt?”
“Of course, it did.”
My question is still indelibly stamped in my memory. To this day, I am unsure if I meant the bullets or his children’s hearts hurting as they broke. To hear your father is never coming home and your mother is not there for you. The Kennedy children must’ve been told by a relative, also shrouded in their own private grief. When we turn the corner on the street where we live, the scene from the school’s hallway is echoed. Neighbors hugging neighbors, crying in hushed circles. Everyone is outside, as if they’re expecting something else to happen and they need to be close together when it does.
Inside, on our small television, the images continually replay. The commentator solemnly details the afternoon’s events in Dallas, Texas. 24-7 cable news and the Internet are decades in the future. Only three major news outlets to choose from, and like most of the world, my folks choose “Uncle” Walter Cronkite, hoping he will announce this was all one awful mistake.
My parents send us to bed earlier than usual, as if they haven’t the energy to return to normalcy just yet. I say my prayers, kneeling by my bed. My mother has opened the windows, but the air is heavy, muggy. She has replaced the summer curtains with the heavy corduroy drapes that she made. Nothing moves; the only sounds come from a chorus of crickets and frogs outside. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been asleep when I am awakened, feeling the certain presence of someone in my room. There he is, seated on the foot of my bed, that President-man, the one from the television. He wears a dark blue suit and tie. He looks kind, sad and weary, but not at all frightening. I want to ask him how it felt to be shot, whether he misses his children, but I am too shy.
“Our country experienced something awful today, Madelaine.”
How does he know my name?
He speaks adult words with a different accent than I am used to hearing. I do not wish to be rude, so I nod in agreement.
“It may be years before you understand what has happened. But I want you to remember, your generation has the power to change the future. Don’t waste that chance, okay?”
He smiles, pats my head and walks right through the window. The curtains sway a bit as he disappears. He leaves behind the unmistakable scent of men’s cologne. To this day, I am certain I did not dream this; I feel certain that he came to speak to many other people that night because I am no one special. It will be years before I can tell anyone about this experience because I do not want to be made fun of or accused of lying. I keep this to myself until I am in high school and when we study this period in history, I confide this story to a friend and a cousin. It never gets mentioned again until I am well into adulthood.
Camelot…As Baby Boomers, we lived through the confusion and tumultuous changes that defined the 60s. With the other eighth-grade girls in my class, I flirted shamelessly with a classmate’s handsome brother who was an altar boy at our Friday masses. He disappeared for a good while, returning to that same altar in a pine box, from a village in Southeast Asia whose name we could not pronounce nor find on a map. This was a far different landscape we were learning to maneuver as we entered adolescence, ambiguous in a way the Depression and World War II were not. Our parents watched draft-card and bra burners, sensing the other fires burning inside of their children. We wanted freedom from parental and societal restraints, although we had no idea what we would do with it. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy soon joined JFK as their two assassinations flashed across the television waves. Camelot’s promise had detonated in our faces; we became cynical and numb.
Few things are more evocative of memories than smell. That lingering scent of a man’s cologne convinced me that I had not dreamed that visit. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a young President who became idealized and mythologized in our lifetimes. Today’s historians look back at his brief tenure in office, uncovering many doubts and shortcomings, cracks in his hero status. He was an imperfect husband, an oft-distracted father and a flawed leader. Doesn’t matter. He became an enduring symbol for a generation that did fight for many changes, albeit not always effectively or fairly.
The war eventually ended in Vietnam, leaving us to question whether we needed to ever be involved again in forcing our brand of democracy on other nations. Although race relations continue to persist, we made some solid gains when the Supreme Court voted on Loving v. Loving, and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts became laws. Along the way, we also made progress in fights for more equality for women, the LGBTQ community and persons with disabilities. We got to the moon too, something JFK had once dared us to do. Along the way, we made technological improvements in how we communicate with one another. (Yes, Steve Jobs was a boomer too!) Our music outraged and worried our parents, but we’ve nothing to apologize for there. Woodstock, Motown and the Fab Four earned their places in history. And don’t forget, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Sesame Street and Charlie Brown wove kindness through our childhood…when we took time to listen.
President Kennedy left us with many quotes about service, country and courage. This is a personal favorite:
The stories of past courage … can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul. What really counts is not the immediate act of courage or of valor, but those who bear the struggle day in and day out.
What did his visit mean to me? What had been its purpose in my life? I am unsure if I will ever have an answer, yet over the decades, I have learned that self-absorption has a very short expiration date. There will always be causes greater than my own problems, opportunities for change that beckon me to step up. At the end of our lives, don’t we all wish to leave legacies that demonstrate that we’ve noticed some of these and acted upon them? After all, he also counseled us that we were not to ask what our country could do for us, but rather what we could do for our country.