The first President I could name was John F. Kennedy. President Eisenhower was in office when I was born, but he was gone before I knew what a President was. Kennedy held the Presidency when I became aware of the importance of that office.
I recall sitting in my pint-sized rocking chair in my bedroom in the summer of 1963, thinking how lucky I was to be American and Catholic. That’s what the President was, and it must be the best thing on earth to be. Camelot came in generalities to a seven-year-old, but it came. The Kennedy family was glamorous, as I could see each week in Life magazine.
As I have mentioned before, President Kennedy visited my hometown in September 1963, and I saw him in person. I was more excited to see my classmate in the long parade of cars of people going to hear the President dedicate the new Hanford reactor than I was to actually see him. But I knew this was a rare opportunity, and I was happy when my father lifted me to his shoulder so I could actually view President Kennedy with my own eyes.
And then two months later, he was dead.
Word came during noon recess.
“The President is dead,” another child told me. “Miss C_____ is crying.”
For Miss C_____, our teacher, to be crying seemed the end of the world to me. She was young and ditzy, and couldn’t control the fifty children in my parochial school classroom, but she was an adult. If she were crying, the situation must be dire.
We had practiced the duck and cover drills that year. The day was grey and gloomy. Was the world about to end?
Over the next few days I learned a bad man had shot the President. Another bad man shot the first. The happy world of the American and Catholic President was over.
We got off from school on the day of President Kennedy’s funeral. My brother and I watched the ceremonies on television with our mother. I hadn’t seen Mrs. Kennedy’s bloodstained clothes the day the President was shot, but during the funeral I saw John-John salute his father and Caroline in her pretty little coat so much like mine. Their daddy was dead now, and so was my President. If it could happen in the Kennedy family, could it happen in mine?
Two years later, my grandfather died.
And a couple of years after that, there were more national tragedies in the Kennedy family and the King family, and Helen Keller died, too. By the 1968 series of calamities, I knew that death came to all.
But losing President Kennedy was my first awareness that life is a tentative thing, and I have never felt as secure as I did in my rocking chair that summer before President Kennedy died.
When did you first lose your sense of security?