Saturday, June 22, 1961
Hanging over the balcony rail of New York’s Majestic Theater was an almost 12-year-old girl falling deeply, passionately in love for the very first time. Tales of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson were juvenile; belief in tooth-hoarding pixies, egg-gifting rabbits and jolly old men who performed miracles on 34th Street had long departed, but what unfolded before her eyes rekindled an innocent longing for magic and faeries, romance and idealism. Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet transported her to Camelot, a kingdom where there was “simply not a more convenient spot for happily-ever-aftering…”
It wasn’t the marvelous Lerner and Lowe musical score, exquisite costumes or acting abilities of the award-winning cast (although it did give me a lifelong-crush on the inimical, gone-too-soon Burton) that captured my heart. It was the persuasion and promise of the theatrical premise. Maybe Camelot, a world where right took precedent over might, where shared at a round table with no ONE individual claiming totalitarian authority, social differences could be peacefully resolved by communication was not just a pretty pipe dream. Maybe it could really happen.
That possibility became more of a reality when in late 1960, the office of U.S. President was about to be vacated by battle-weary and war-beleaguered General Dwight David Eisenhower. In a national election that the American public could easily follow – and was totally befuddled by – via newsprint, radio AND television, we young people watched a youthful, charismatic, charming fellow narrowly defeat a dour, middle-aged man who seemed to us a mere extension of the same old-same old.
At the age of 43, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, beating Republican Richard Nixon by only 115,000 votes, took the oath of office as the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961.
Next: We listened and heeded the words of our own “King Arthur,” when his inaugural speech staunchly challenged us…
…“Let [us] seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce;
“Let [us] unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah – to undo the heavy burdens – and to let the oppressed go free.
“And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.
“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
“Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
“Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shank from this responsibility – I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.
“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Granted, the Kennedy administration was not without numerous and oft-times controversial issues: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile crisis, erection of the wall dividing East and West Berlin, the formative events of military action in Vietnam and the much belated genesis of the Civil Rights Movement. But we teenagers and young people collectively trusted JFK; we heeded his call to service, be it helping younger children with their reading at an elementary school or picking up trash on weekends in the park. I chose to become a student speaker advocate for what was then called the United Fund and volunteered to assist sight-impaired teens with their school work at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. I cared because my beloved President asked me to care; I cared because I believed he cared about me.
Friday, November 22, 1963
It was 1:30 p.m. Ninth graders at Madison Junior High in Miami, FL, bored stupid by an interminable geography lecture, Laura Lacey and I were passing notes and whispering, then greatly relieved when the tedium was interrupted by the subdued voice of assistant principal Mrs. Carruthers over the PA system.
“Boys and girls,” she announced. “I am greatly saddened to report that President Kennedy has died. Our nation is in mourning. You need to go straight home. Teachers, ensure that your students leave in an orderly manner.”
Personally, I remember completely stunned silence. No chaos, just a total emotional abyss. The first few moments were a shroud. Then there were tears as I flew down three flights of stairs directly into the arms of my favorite teacher, Ed Liebhauser, now 82 years old and a recent corroborator of my memories.
“Yes, you were sobbing, Janet, inconsolable,” he recollected during a telephone reunion some weeks ago, “and all I could do was hug you and tell you to run on home; everything would be all right.”
For a time, Mr. Liebhauser was wrong; nothing was all right. In days, weeks, months, years to come, I watched horrors unfold in a world that made me frightened, furious, then numb and apathetic. Kennedy’s killer was himself gunned down before my eyes; Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King followed suit. Boys in tacky tuxedos that I danced with at prom were bid farewell in boxes draped with red, white and blue bunting. We watched a man take one small step on the moon; later seven souls soaring skyward became angels in the blink of an eye. Starvation, poverty, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, civil, social, racial, sexual, gender discrimination. But, as Walter Cronkite ambiguously told us every night, “that’s the way it is.”
Yet somewhere in a tiny recess of my mind was a snippet of that song which had filled my little girl’s heart back in ’61, bolstered by later learning that it was also a favorite of President Kennedy’s. It got me to thinking – JFK never implied that we individually had the power to cure the woes of the world; all he asked was that we as a society do something; find a cause to support and act on it; don’t just bitch and moan or apathetically accept that that’s the way it is. Instead, he challenged every one of us to to use our own particular talent to make the world a better place, truly capable of stating “and that’s the way it was.” That was my epiphany; Camelot is still in arm’s reach.
I have become the woman I am today greatly influenced by the life and death of JFK. There is a no more appropriate way to summarize my belief that together, we can rebuild our wonder-filled world than through the final words of that musical play I still love a half-century later:
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory,
Don’t let if be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one, brief, shining moment that was known
Do you remember the day JFK died? Robert Kennedy? Did other events of historical importance impact your life? Please share your thoughts and comments with others here on Dower Power.