Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans –
born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit
the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world ... Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
— From John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address
I was 8 years old when, on Jan. 20, 1961, I huddled with my parents and sisters around our black-and-white console television to watch John Fitzgerald Kennedy deliver his most famous speech. I little understood then its careful crafting but took full note of its dramatic delivery. There in the center of the screen stood this handsome young man, boasting no greatcoat nor traditional top hat as he braved the bitter cold to proclaim proudly to a waiting world that the torch had, indeed, been passed to a new generation of Americans – of which he was both its leader and its fullest expression.
It is difficult today to explain to someone under the age of 50 what the world was like when JFK was president. It seems now that the Cold War, the Beatles and JFK defined the early years of the 1960s. If you were Irish Catholic then, you probably had a picture of the president right beside the picture of the pope. JFK and the ever radiant Jackie dazzled the nation as they dominated the news of the day. They were the Arthur and Guinevere of a new Camelot – a kingdom where righteousness and reason would right the wrongs of a world gone awry and astray. How prophetic Kennedy’s words now seem in hindsight:
“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days;
nor in the life of this administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
I remember so well the day of his assassination. I was a fifth-grader attending St. James School in Haverhill. When news of the tragedy arrived, it was close to the end of the school day. The Sisters of St. Joseph who staffed the school were nearly all Irish Catholic; their grief as palpable as the splotches on their starched white bibs. We were sent home from school to parents just as confused, frightened and grief-stricken as we were. The bullet fired that fateful November day shattered not only the skull of a young president, but the dreams and desires of a generation of Americans who had grown to draw strength and stamina from him. Our nation’s innocence had been destroyed.
Ironically, the death of the president would give birth to the fullest expression of television as our major information medium. For four days, we gathered around our TV sets – watching, waiting and weeping. We witnessed the first live murder ever recorded by TV cameras as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald into silence, taking to his grave a thousand questions left forever unanswered. There were also questions that this young boy asked his father that would also go unanswered – life after death, heaven and hell, and good and evil.
The following Monday, the day of the funeral, had been declared a national day of mourning by Lyndon Johnson, the new president. I was 11 years old when, on Nov. 25, 1963, I once again huddled with my parents and sisters around our black-and-white console television to watch John Fitzgerald Kennedy brought to his final resting place. I need no film clip nor YouTube video to recall the riderless horse, stirrups filled with reversed empty boots; little John Jr. so proudly standing at attention, saluting the father he so little knew while partaking in a tragedy he so little understood; the brother Jack loved best trying his best to console the woman Jack loved best.
Years have passed since then. In the half century since JFK met his untimely death, the world has much changed. Bobby and Martin Luther King would soon be gone, their short lives also ended by an assassin’s bullet. We extricated ourselves from a long war in Southeast Asia only to embroil ourselves in a longer-lasting one in the Middle East. We put men on the moon, endured the scandals of Watergate, hoped for the safe return of the Iranian embassy hostages, lived through recessions, fought through the nightmare of 9/11 and managed to bring to justice its malevolent mastermind. Presidents have come and gone – some better than others – but none with the charm and charisma of their predecessor.
Much information has come to light about John F. Kennedy since his tragic and untimely death. We now know about his hidden health problems, his deceitful dalliances and his questionable choice of acquaintances. We now accept that he – like us – was, after all, only human. Yet, for so many of us, John Fitzgerald Kennedy will remain forever a breath of fresh air in a country so much polluted with the petty policies of pretty politicians.
His clarion call has gone forth from that time and place; the torch passed to each new generation of Americans.
There are few better ways to honor his memory than for each of us to answer in our way the challenge he posed on his inauguration day:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Barry Mooers is a retired Haverhill public school teacher who enjoys reading, writing, walking and gardening.