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40th Anniversary of President Kennedy's Assassination
I was ten years old when John F. Kennedy became President. I remember his Inauguration Speech where he challenged Americans to do what they could for their country and expect the government to do less for them. He said the torch had been passed to a new generation and many of us carry it still.
I remember some of his other speeches about going to the Moon, about the concept of a Peace Corps, about Civil Rights. He inspired me at an early age and his ideals shaped my mind for many years to come.
I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in the generation, perhaps the only generation that practiced Civil Defense drills in the crawl space of an elementary school. Those Duck and Cover exercises might have been actually used had President Kennedy not forced Russian ships to turn back for home, away from the military blockade.
I remember him also as a man with his wife and family. I was proud to be an American and had lots of hope for the future of my country. I looked through the eyes of a child at the world then. European countries supported us politically and President Kennedy was very popular in France and Germany. It was a different time.
That all ended on November 22, 1963. As far as I'm concerned, that is the day America changed. It changed forever. I changed along with it.
The picture below is the exact location I was standing at when I heard President Kennedy had been shot. No chain link fence existed at the time and the doors were painted dark green. I was about ten feet from the bottom of those flight of stairs, leading to those double-doors. He had not yet been declared dead. In fact, we knew nothing of his wounds until much later in the afternoon.
My fellow students and teachers were crying when the news came out that he was dead. We thought the Russians did it. We thought World War III was about to break out. We felt shock and fear both at the same time.
I watched some of the news that weekend. I remember Lee Harvey Oswald claiming he did not kill the President. We'll never know the whole story because on November 24th, Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby. I was watching it on live TV and while I was already numb with bad feelings, watching someone get shot in real-time was just one more traumatic experience I had that weekend.
I don't recall ever talking to anyone about what had happened on that Friday through Sunday. Whatever psychological and emotional damage occured, it wasn't dealt with or even considered at the time. I was a young teenager then, I didn't know I was supposed to express myself to help work things out. When I watched the public assembly in the Capitol's Rotunda (shown below), I was reminded of my own father's wake just eight years earlier, almost to the day. It still hurts to see film of Jacqueline Kennedy kneeling down to kiss the flag-draped casket while holding her daughter's hand. It's too much like what I did at my father's service.
The funeral on that Monday can never be forgotten. The procession of leaders from all over the world attending was memorable. The drum roll as the horse-drawn caisson carrying President Kennedy's body to the cemetery is indelibly imprinted in my memory. I remember the lighting of the Eternal Flame. To be honest, I don't know how the Kennedy family got through it without breaking down. But, they showed the world how you do get through it with dignity and grace.
In 1988, I was in Dallas and I stood directly below the School Book Depository building. I looked up to a window on the sixth floor and cursed whoever used the rifle up there. I walked out to the place in the street where I thought the bullets struck the President. Then I looked back again at that sixth-floor window and a rage began to build within me. I glanced over towards the grassy knoll and wondered if an assassin had been there too. It was time to leave and let the emotions settle down.
In 1990, I went to Arlington National Cemetery. That place is sacred in my opinion because of all the people that lie there. I stood before the Eternal Flame and felt sad once more. I looked around his grave-site and there are granite stone blocks with excerpts from his Inaugural Speech. As those words are carved in stone, they are also engraved in the content of my character to a certain degree. I find as an adult, I can't always live up in full expectation to the ideals that shaped me in my youth.
Forty years have passed today. I am middle-aged now and sometimes I think about what it would have been like had he not been shot. No VietNam War Memorial would exist because there would have been no American involvement in that country where we had no business in the first place. Civil Rights could be the standard acceptance and the norm in America. No Islamic terrorist organizations would exist because every country in the Middle East might have signed a Peace Treaty decades ago.
Those are dreams that had their start in the words I heard from President Kennedy when I was young. Those opportunities died when he did. Part of me died that day too, it was my innocence. I think many Americans lost something that day. We search for it, but it is nowhere to be found.
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