Letter From New York, November 26, 2013

Or, as it seems to me…

Fifty years later…

I was a young boy in Catholic school in 1963 when, in the early afternoon, it was announced that the President had been shot.  Not long after, it was announced that the President had died and we were all sent home.  At home, on that rainy November day, standing in our living room, looking out at Bryant Avenue, watching buses trundle down the rain slicked street, in a grey room on a grey day, I turned to my mother and asked her a question for which she had no answer:  what kind of country are we to do this?

I remember distinctly the color of the wood frames of the window, that I was looking out to the world and looking to the world to give me an answer.  That year the living room was painted an ivory color: I was standing behind a chair with a pink velvet back, next to a marble top that held ashtrays for guests, cocktail napkins and other assorted party goods, I remember all those odd details because that was where I was standing when I understood that Kennedy had died.  Not where I was when we I heard it but where I was when I understood he was dead.

I was crying that afternoon, once I realized what had happened.  I hadn’t realized what had happened when I heard the news; I only realized it when I was home, in the safety of my home, in the warmth of my home, in a place where I thought I was allowed to feel.

I was Catholic.  Kennedy was the first Catholic president.  We had all watched his inauguration on television in school on the portable television I had carried to school from my bedroom.  It was a major moment for Catholics, though not for my family.  We were Republicans and had supported Nixon – definitely a minority at Visitation School that year, 1960, when he had been elected. 

The 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy has brought back to me all kinds of memories of those days, the day he died, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald murdered on live television, the day he was buried.  I recall we watched CBS, Walter Cronkite’s voice carrying us through the trauma of having what we thought of as a lovely young man, youngest man elected to the Presidency, with a lovely family, the leader of the free world, a man of eloquent words and the capability of stirring men to motion, gone in a sudden, mad moment that even today seems incomprehensible.

Conspiracy theories flow like a raging river even now; there are conferences for them, those who think Kennedy’s death was the result of a far-right conspiracy or the result of Castro’s revenge, or that the Mafia organized his death or Lyndon Johnson’s Texas cabal organized the President’s death to catapult their man into office; it was Kennedy’s own driver who murdered him.  There were shots everywhere on the grassy knoll.  There are, it seems, a thousand theories and a hundred conspiracies, which have kept the case from closing on Kennedy’s death.  The Warren Commission was a white wash.  It goes on and on and will probably never end.

Kennedy was a man who said:  A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.  And Kennedy was an idea that has lived on despite our growing knowledge of his flaws and faults and all too mortal foibles, of his dalliances with interns, movie stars and mob connected women.  He accomplished only a middling amount in Congress but he was an idea and he lives on, an idea that drove us to the moon and back, an idea that created the Peace Corps, an idea that still inspires us to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

He is gone.  Those of us who remember where we were when we heard he had died are entering our late middle age or more and will be exiting the stage.  The 50th Anniversary of his death is a marker for those who remember where they were; fifty years is a long time, a lifetime, a half-century in which the world has radically changed.

It is said his death marked the end of innocence but we were not innocent then.  We were a deeply divided country, simmering with rage over integration and economic issues that bubbled over in the years following his death.  His death was the punctuation point for all the troubles to come.

But Kennedy was an idea and he lives on, an idea, an abstract, held in higher regard than any other post war President, 90% of people think he did a wonderful job and they think that because he is an idea that lives on, an eloquent idea that drew us beyond ourselves both while he lived and since he has died.



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One Response to “Letter From New York, November 26, 2013”

  1. Phil Rhode Says:

    Thanks for the memories Mat. I too was at De when Kennedy was killed. (I worked on a lot of plays with you while you were there) I had forgot about the rain but I remember I had convinced myself on the bus home that this was going to start a war. I had figured the Russians had tried to provoke one with the Cuban missile crisis but Kennedy had avoided it there so they decided to assassinate him in hopes that the US would have to retaliate somehow. My little brother had already got home from Annunciation but mom was gone somewhere so we sat in front of the TV getting more and more frightened. When mom got home she turned off the TV and told us to go do something else.
    I know my dad supported Kennedy because Kennedy was a Catholic and a combat veteran. I’m not sure who my mom supported but probably Kennedy. I remember some of the neighborhood debates my dad had about the fear of Kennedy bringing Catholic teachings into the White House. Some of them got pretty heated. I know both parents were really upset by this.
    I’ve been reading your letters from New York since shortly after you started them after 911. I really enjoy when you talk about the country around your cottage and the occasional mention of some of the people we went to high school with. When you miss a month I miss your writing. Keep it up.

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