I was in second grade on November 22, 1963, one in a pod of 30 young French Catholics at Manchester’s St. Georges School, being taught by a young nun who had recently traded her dark, heavy robes and sunrise-shaped headpiece for a modish knee-length black skirt and a light black veil. Over in Rome, Vatican II was breaking up the heavy clouds of a gloomy Catholicism, and we were feeling it even in the dark halls of our century-old grammar school.
We were so young, so sheltered from harsh reality. TV cowboys died in bloodless battles, smooth-shaven and clutching their laundered shirt fronts as they fell noiselessly onto clean sands. Songs and movies were free of foul language. News shows were sanitized to ensure that nothing would spoil the family dinner, eaten from TV trays.
When a sister came streaking into our classroom around 12:45pm on that day, though we didn't realize it, our cozy and predictable world had already come to an end. Sticking her veiled head into the class, she yelled, "The president has been shot!" before streaking off to announce the news to other classrooms. Our young teacher, Sister Judy, bade us all to get on our knees. Together, we prayed Hail Marys--a good, short prayer accessible to 7-years-olds and, with its plea to the Virgin to "pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death," apt. Not long after 1pm, the same nun stuck her head through the door again. This time, her message was stark and short. "The president is dead." Sister Judy had us take our seats again, intercessory prayer for the president's life now being useless.
I don’t I remember much else from that awful weekend, when my dad said he cried like a baby. The interviews with the alleged gunman, his own shocking murder on live TV, the new widow kissing her husband's coffin, the cortege through Washington's stunned and silent streets, a little boy's playful salute, the drums, the burial. My memories, too, are buried -- not beneath Arlington soil, but under layers of later reading and viewing: full-color Life magazine spreads of the president's head exploding in an orange halo, the Warren Report's gruesome testimony and illustrations, and 50 years of watching a black Lincoln convertible, flags fluttering in the warm Texas breeze, gliding again and again into the killing zone.
Not long after the assassination, Treasure Chest, the magazine for Catholic kids, published a comic book telling of JFK's death, including Jackie's "No, No, No!" as she cradled her husband's wounded body (to we Catholics, a 20th-century Pieta), the doctors at Parkland Hospital trying to save the president’s life, and the last rites of the Catholic Church being administered (we all fervently hoped) just in time before the president died.
Kennedy's death, for us in 1963, was more than the tragic loss of a young, handsome and inspiring leader. It marked the beginning of tortuous lifelong journey with many "firsts." Of the twisted mentality that drives small men to murder the great. Of the damage that bullets wreak on bone and flesh. Of guards who cannot protect and of police who are unwise. Of autopsy pictures. Of conspiracies theories. Of knowing that for some, tragedy means profit.
The wounds of November 22, 1963 went deep. For many, JFK's death meant the loss of innocence, dreams and optimism. Where mistrust of leaders and government was once the purview of a few on the fringe, it exploded into the mainstream with the Vietnam generation, settled in during Watergate, and has now metastasized into a million cable channels, blogs and news sites.
John Kennedy was perhaps the last American president who could challenge the country to do great things--a country naïve enough to answer his summons. The bullets that cut him down 50 years ago seem to have dragged our own dreams into the grave with him.
But if this anniversary of John Kennedy’s death is to have meaning, let it be that a man’s life not be measured by his ability to destroy another’s, but by his ability to inspire, to build and to know that “here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” After 50 years, it is time again to reject the dark call of cynicism, apathy and suspicion, to take up the torch that John Kennedy lit for us, and to carry it forward into a future that is bright with optimism, hope and progress.