For many, the nation changed that late November day in 1963 when it lost its young, vigorous, charismatic leader, President John F. Kennedy.
"…Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot!" – last lines from the title song in President Kennedy's favorite musical, 'Camelot'
GO RIGHT AHEAD. It's okay. After all, come this Friday it'll be 50 years. Relax and reflect. Pause for a moment and just dwell. Think back to 12:35 PM, November 22, 1963. Think about where you were, what you were doing or with whom you were spending time when you heard the news.
For many, the nation changed that late November day in 1963 when it lost its young, vigorous, charismatic leader. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the near catastrophe of Apollo 13, the Challenger explosion or when Elvis Presley passed away in August of 1977, those incidents never affected us quite like JFK's untimely death.
Some say the day the president was assassinated was the day America lost its innocence. Whether it did or didn't, his death surely altered the course of the country and subsequently, history.
If you were old enough to recall, I'll bet you remember every little detail of that moment. I know I do.
A radio station used to give periodic flashbacks of history as if that historic moment was happening in the present. For example an announcer would say, "And now for our historic flashback of the day, 'Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese this Sunday morning.' President Roosevelt said, 'It is a day that will live in infamy.'" Or they'd play some historic moment of the Civil War or of gold being discovered at Sutter's Mill in California.
I was near Warren, driving south toward Youngstown, when I turned on the radio and heard the announcer say, "The president has been shot. No update is available as to his condition. Stay tuned for more information."
The first thought that entered my mind was that I had just picked up the tail end of one of their history broadcasts and they were covering the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln by the actor John Wilkes Booth. That is, until I heard the next news blurb.
"Here is an update. Reports are, but have not yet been officially confirmed, that an assassination attempt has been made on the president's life. The presidential motorcade is proceeding in an emergency to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas."
Assassination attempt? Motorcade? Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas? I thought. This isn't a flashback.
I was a young man of 22 at the time and highly impressed with our youthful, charismatic, president, his wife, Jackie, and his two children, Caroline and John, Jr. I had all the long playing 33 1/3 record albums, especially the Vaughn Meader records that mimicked his broad Boston brogue and quick wit and, on occasion, I even tried to mimicked him myself. During his presidency, I tried reading almost everything I could find on him.
When he ran in 1960 I was still too young to vote (the legal age was 21 at the time) but planned to support the president vigorously in his anticipated run for a second term. Nevertheless, not being able to support him at the polls during his first run didn't stop me.
When Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy came to campaign Allentown, Pa., I was fortunate enough to shake his hand during a street parade as it slowed to a crawl from the hotel where he stayed to the spot where he would speak.
After his plane landed in the wee small hours of the morning, it taxied to the end of the runway and waited. There were so many awaiting his arrival at the Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton Airport that authorities feared injuries if the crowd suddenly saw him and stormed across the runway. Instead, they waited in hopes the people would tire and go home to sleep. But as time moved along, more and more arrived at the airport to catch a glimpse of John F. Kennedy.
Finally officials decided to taxi the plane to the terminal and hope for the best. When Kennedy finally emerged from the plane he descended the steps, walked to a microphone that was set up at the bottom and, in his Boston accent, said, "Only the good people of the Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton area would wait in the rain at three in the morning to welcome and greet the next president of the United States."
The Senator could've stopped right there and said nothing more. The crowd went wild. He had them at "good people." I thought of the crowds Elvis Presley drew in the '50's. Kennedy's were comparable.
As I recalled that campaign in 1960, I remembered how I also saw Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Kennedy and Nixon's running mates respectively, when they campaigned that year. The only one of the four major candidates I didn't see was Vice-president Richard Milhous Nixon. But the only one who really impressed me was JFK.
During the three days after Kennedy's death, I sat glued to the television, absorbing every bit of news that was released. I watched the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and then Kennedy's funeral. The First Lady displayed so much class to the nation during those first days of grief and I'll never forget the salute 2-year-old John-John gave his father's casket passed.
For me, something happened with the death of JFK. It marked the day I no longer looked at life in such a care-free, easy-come, easy-go nature as the way I always had. From that moment on, I took life more seriously. I, along with so many other Americans, seemed to recognize our own mortality in the death of our youthful, charismatic, president. It felt as if it marked the end of our innocence.
For me, it marked a milestone in my life. For me and so many others, Kennedy's presidency of 1,037 days surely was "one brief, shining moment."