Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK

When I was a boy, I met Jack Kennedy on June 6, 1963, on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, California. I was standing on the sidewalk directly across from Blessed Sacrament Church. The church had its own grade school on the grounds, and the nuns (who were very good at this) had marched the children out and deployed them in well-behaved and orderly class formation on the sidewalk and surrounding elevations. They were wearing school uniforms a lot like the ones we wore at my Catholic School, St. John of the Cross in nearby Lemon Grove.

When we woke up that morning, to our surprise, my mom told my brother and sister and me that we would not be going to school. When the school bus paused at the edge of our front lawn to pick us up, we were to wave the driver on. This morning, she explained, we were going to see the President of the United States. It was the only day (except when I was sick) that my mother ever willingly let me miss school. She put us in the car and we drove the few miles to the route of the motorcade. A crowd estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 people lined El Cajon Boulevard as Kennedy’s motorcade traveled from Lindbergh Field slowly down the street. He was headed to California State University, San Diego, which was located on the eastern outskirts of the city. He would give the commencement address, and receive the first honorary doctorate to be bestowed by the California State University system.

Governor Pat Brown and the local Congressman were in the car riding with the President. Children pushed to the front of the crowd, stepped into the street, and craned their necks to see if they could spot the approaching motorcade. It was sometime late in the morning when we saw the blue and red flashing lights of the advance motorcycle escort. They drove close to the curb in order to make sure the crowd stayed back on the sidewalk. 

 Kennedy, although he had started the trip seated in the back seat of the open presidential limousine, stood up alone at the front of the car once he reached the areas of the route where the crowds were large. When the car pulled up across from Blessed Sacrament Church, Kennedy had the driver stop the car, and he turned to that side and waved for a time to the nuns and school children. The car resumed its progress up the street, and I remember Kennedy holding on with one hand to the glass backstop behind the front seat and waving and smiling to the crowds. Occasionally he would brush his hair off his forehead in that characteristic patrician gesture he had (one that I later noticed his brother Robert had as well). One of those times when he brushed his hair back, the sunlight caught his hair with a bright orange glint. It was a moment of magic.

It’s an interesting thing about memory, about how the emotional state you are in can affect what you remember and how. I was relating what I remembered about this event to someone recently, before I went back and looked at some archives of the event, and I was sure that Kennedy’s limousine had been an older model Cadillac rather than the Lincoln Continental in which he had been killed in Dallas, because I remembered the distinctive front grill of the car. It turns out that this was the grill on the automobile of the Secret Service agents, the car directly following Kennedy. Kennedy was, in fact, in the Lincoln. The image that followed immediately after that sun-glanced moment was what imprinted itself on my memory most unshakably, and as it turns out erroneously.

I don’t know what charisma is or how it gets created--some combination of the look of the man and the internal feelings you sense from the crowd. But certainly John Kennedy had it. I also know that for my mother and father, the children of second-generation ethnic-American Catholic immigrants from Poland and Italy (and by extension to me as well), John Kennedy being elected to the presidency represented their arrival and confirmation as real Americans, a feeling that not even their participation in the Second World War had given them. It was a time of celebration and hope. On the 50th anniversary of his death, I wanted to pass on this recollection of what his life meant to so many. That’s the way I want to remember John Kennedy.

A personal reminiscence by librarian Hubert Kozak.

No comments: