November 22nd. Strikes a sullen chord. Any year -- and yet this year, it is the 50th year. Striking a crescendo of deep and bitter sadness.
Maybe it’s because I was raised in a house where John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s picture (clipped from the Sunday Daily News memorial issue), along with a clipping of his “Ask NOT” speech, were both lovingly taped on a clean piece of white paper and hung in a plain brown wooden frame and displayed with the greatest prominence in our living room; even higher than the wedding photos. That same picture (in the same frame) hangs in my son’s house in Milwaukee -- with the same respect. He is a world studies and American history teacher.
Left, a book my mother recently gave me from UPI, published in 1964.
Or it might be because if I went to my cousins’ house in Maspeth, they had a felt rug painting of JFK on the wall. Or over in Middle Village, the whole family would sit around the record player and howl with laughter as Vaughn Meader enunciated “and the rubber swan … is mine” in perfect Kennedy Boston accent. Or perhaps my mom would be playing the LP with all of JFK’s major speeches with comments by Ted Sorensen. Either way, the only other person on this earth (or maybe above it) who rated higher in our families’ hierarchy was the Pope.
In the winter of ’67, my mom took my brother, my sister, and I to Rockefeller Center to see the tree for Christmas. As first-generation American children of Irish immigrant parents—leaving the familiarity of Queens for Manhattan was a tremendous adventure. The décor that year was as festive as it is today. New York always shines at Christmas. My mother became very excited and leaned down to tell me “LOOK KEVIN!! That is Robert Kennedy!!!” And sure enough, there in a light brown suit jacket, despite the bitter cold was New York’s Senator Robert Francis Kennedy making a beeline straight for my mother (who was ready to die). My brother and sister immediately took up refuge behind my mother’s legs as she pushed me out from under her coat—forward to the Senator. Senator Kennedy leaned down. All the way down. And I looked up into a pair of perfectly grey, happily smiling, compassionate eyes. Eyes that were used to looking at children. Eyes that had seen much sadness and yet contained delight. I said “Hi Mr. Ken-dy!”. He patted me on my head and said “Hey Kiddo!” and was off.
My mother purchased the Revell© John F. Kennedy Oval Office scale model kit complete with rocking chair; a PT-109 portrait over the fireplace mantel; and oval carpeting. My mother explained that she “wanted me to build this with great care.” She especially helped me paint his face, hands, and suit. She called my attention to how he sat (with one leg crossed over and hand on his ankle) and what color the walls were. Detail was important. Colors matter.
Maybe it’s because the house I grew up in contained the full Warren Commission Report and that I was asked to read it while my classmates were reading Huck Finn. So that when we had a history fair at school, I recreated Dallas’ Dealey Plaza with excruciating detail. A perfectly scaled Elm Street Book Depository done in balsa with every window hand-cut. The road. The car. Even a metal wire tracing the bullet path. I attached a self-typed report synopsis from the Warren Commission report and actual newspaper clippings from the Dallas Morning News, dated November 22, 1963. Fifth grade.
‘We wept as a small family unit – together.’
And as I approached the altar towards the Archbishop for my confirmation in 1972 he asked “and what name have you chosen?” – to which I answered “John” (of course). That summer my small (newly divorced) family took a Casser Bus Tour to Washington, D.C. from Port Authority. On my mother’s meager salary from Blue Cross as a subscribers service operator, this was a BIG step in independence. Divorce was scorned even then. As we stuck the portable coil heater in cups to make tea in our single room at the Conrad Hilton, we had arrived indeed. We were going to make it. We went to Arlington National Cemetery, and we kneeled before the eternal flame on the graves of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his son Patrick and we wept as a small family unit—together.
I purchased the Revell(c) PT-109 scale model kit and again paid loving attention to the details: the torpedo tubes; the decals; the control panels; the young Lieutenant JG John F. Kennedy; his shades; the guns; and again the family helped with content by providing articles. The Woodside Branch of the New York Public Library could not acquire enough JFK books for the young boy from 62nd Street down from Roosevelt Avenue.
In fact, when I often visited Grandma Bridget McGuinness — she was ready for me. As head nurse at Forest Hills Hospital, she had access to magazines and newspapers — and she kept this grandson supplied. LOOK, LIFE, TIME, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, US News & World Report, Saturday Evening Post, Long Island Press, Newsday and on and on. She kept years of material for me. And I read it ALL. My weekends with Grandma were special. She would make tea, and we would talk politics, economy, news, history, science—whatever. She fed and I read. “Bridie” McGuinness was magical. Even though she had a Barry Goldwater puppet.
As I got older I bought my own books and embraced ALL the conspiracy theories. I carried a chip on my shoulder for years. I bought Ted Sorensen’s book of JFK’s speeches complete and read them all. JFK. RFK. MLK. X. I read everything. I got excited when Oliver Stone’s JFK came to theaters. I thought we were going to get somewhere. I was still an angry young man.
More recently I bought Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, and, I confess, in certain parts, I blubbered as a child would. The love is still strong there. And at present, I am enjoying “The Patriarch,” the biography of Joseph Kennedy Sr. (and I may be interested in reading Rose Kennedy’s memoirs). It is with uncontrollable pride that I learned Caroline is our proud ambassador to Japan, much as her grandfather was to the Court of St. James. God bless her and keep her safe on her way.
My kids are grown. They vote Democratic. For better or worse, I have passed my torch to a new generation. I have developed many and varied interests of art, science, and music. I enjoy life. November 22nd. The saddest of days. Every November 22nd. The end of Camelot. The dimming of the Light. This one—the 50th. A final curtain in the closing scene. RIP JFK xo