When President John F. Kennedy was killed, 50 years ago today, I was not even a glint in my parents’ eyes. They were sleep deprived after having delivered their second child, my sister, just two weeks earlier. I was still six years away. So why on earth is this day so significant to me?
I can sum it up pretty easily for you — my family is Irish Catholic and we come from the South Side of Chicago. The Kennedys are our royals, the First Family of Irish and Catholics and corruption. Our local version of the Kennedys are the Daleys, and well, suffice it to say that my first son’s middle name is Daley. These Irish Catholic political dynasties, now a dying breed, were something I grew up with and was always profoundly proud to be a part of, even on the periphery.
So, yes, today I have Kennedy on my mind. I have spent hours Googling images of that fateful day fifty years ago and listening to the most amazing memories on NPR. Leave it to the BBC to have the best coverage this afternoon. It included first person interviews with Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who is the man who climbed on the trunk of the Presidential motorcade as Jackie was climbing out of the back seat. It included 93 year old retired Dallas police officer Jim Leavelle who arrested Lee Harvey Oswald and was handcuffed to him when he died. It included a young wife and mother who watched from the curb as her President’s brains splashed across the street. It included one of the ER docs at Parkland Hospital who worked tirelessly to bring President Kennedy back, despite every medical indication being that he was gone.
That day fifty years ago changed the course of American history and global politics. And for whatever reason, Irish Catholicism aside, I have always been attracted to the fairy tale of Camelot. Hell, I have a Pinterest board dedicated to this era. Something about the fashion, the optimism after World War II, the glamour and tragedy of the Kennedys. It’s just rich — all of it so very rich and potent and interesting and magnetic and hopeful for me. It’s probably no coincidence that my folks got married in 1958 and my Mom always and forever reminded me of Jackie Kennedy herself. My folks bought into the whole Kennedy mystique, too.
Ich bin ein Kennedy, know what I mean?
So imagine my surprise and excitement when we went to adopt our new baby boy in Dallas/Ft. Worth. Touching down at the DFW Airport, I couldn’t help but notice all the banners calling out jfk.org — the cyber home of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy met his fate those fifty years ago. I hadn’t made the Dallas/Ft. Worth – Kennedy connection until I saw those banners. And this from someone who has made a pilgrimage to Chappaquiddick of all places. I was excited and disappointed in myself all at the same time.
As we sped away to meet the mother of our soon to be son, I made a silent vow to go to the museum before I left Texas, come hell or high water. And, being a gal of my word, I did.
Let me tell you, that is one hell of a museum. I am the type of person who prefers a museum to a mall (I mean the best museums have the best gift shops anyway, amirite?), and a city to a beach. I stole away for a few hours one day, leaving my family in Ft. Worth, as I made the trek to the Sixth Floor Museum, Dealey Plaza, and the infamous Book Depository building.
I was in the Irish-Catholic-political-dynasty-Kennedy-ZONE. I was grateful to be alone, as I don’t think I know another person who would match my enthusiasm for this jaunt. After getting over my disappointment that cameras were not allowed in the museum itself, I simply gave in to the experience. It is a world class museum, curated with great care. The Kennedy presidency is covered as is the zeitgeist of the era.
And then, as you move through the exhibit, you come to the day itself, November 22, 1963. President Kennedy’s last night was spent in a hotel in Ft. Worth. It was rainy during his outdoor early morning speech in Ft. Worth that Jackie opted out of. Did you know that the couple was mourning the death of their two day old infant just three months earlier? But the campaign never stops, does it? Not when you’re President.
Within a couple of hours the clouds and rain had lifted and the sun shone brightly. The couple flew into Dallas and requested the open top car to diminish any obstacle between them and the people along the parade route as they snaked through the city streets. Always campaigning.
The museum exhibit deftly tells the story of that bright Friday day in Dallas. How there were full page ads in the local newspaper taunting President Kennedy. How the police commissioner went on local radio programs requesting the citizens of Dallas be polite and welcoming of him. How a man named Zapruder filmed the motorcade, inserting himself in one of America’s saddest days on record. How bullets were fired and a President died.
I cried. It was really well done. I will never forget it.
So much was lost fifty years ago today, forever changing the trajectory of America. As I’ve said before about grief, it both hardens and softens you. The same can be said of collective grief — that day in America, we both hardened and softened. America felt deeply, moaned in unison, wept openly, feared for itself.
So, yes, I was not born during Kennedy’s lifetime, but I grieve as if I were. I wonder about an America where three assassinations in five years wholly altered the course of history. I cry for kids who lost their father, a culture who lost their icon, a religion that lost its pioneer, a mom who lost her son, a First Lady who lost her husband, a country who lost its shining hopeful light.
Rest in peace, President Kennedy. Thank you for what you have taught me. I am grateful to you.
If you liked my post and would like to read other ChicagoNow bloggers reflections on Kennedy’s death, check out these blogs:
- Howard Moore of I’ve Got the Hippy Shakes writes about learning about the assassination while in school.
- Chicago radio personality writes about covering Kennedy and his assassination at Roy Leonard’s Ramblings.
- Liz Chilsen writes about her family’s personal connection to President Kennedy in her blog, Neighborland.
- Learn about the Chicago connection to Jack Ruby on Ed Nickow’s Not for Jews Only.
- Kathy Mathews of Quilting! Sewing! Creating! has had just about enough of crass humor related to Kennedy’s death from younger generations.