Remembering JFK and Being Young

     It has been said that every American conscious of events in the autumn of 1963 remembers where he or she was on November 22 of that year. The impact of that afternoon had the power to etch itself forever upon the collective American psyche, perhaps as much as Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. No one alive at those times can ever forget the percussive shock of those colossal incidents in our history as a nation, incidents that had a way of funneling their way down to our personal lives and personal recollections. I was seventeen years old when JFK was assassinated, and today in his memory and the memory of what we used to be as a country before we lost our innocence, I’d like to share what I recall of that time.

     The presidential election of 1960 was the first of which I had much awareness.  When Eisenhower was elected in the early 1950’s, I was only six years old. At home in 1960 my family and I watched the Kennedy/Nixon debates on our black and white television set, and I remember only that something about Richard Nixon didn’t ring true to me, because everything he said sounded prepared or even memorized.  My Aunt Hazel and Uncle Walter, staunch Republicans, paid me five dollars to wear a Nixon campaign button to school for a whole week, and as a fourteen-year-old, I thought five bucks was a huge amount of money.  However, I wore the button to school only once, as it seemed every other kid wearing a button wore one for JFK.  When cute Shirley Bodner offered to give me a JFK button, I immediately put the Nixon one into my back pocket in order to fit in better with my peers.  None of this had anything to do with actual politics.  Once again it was all about image.  Jack Kennedy seemed younger, more confident, and more articulate than Richard Nixon, who appeared to represent more of the same old thing from Ike’s eight years as President.  Change meant some excitement, and to us fourteen-year-olds, that was a good thing.  Not wanting to disappoint Aunt Hazel and Uncle Walter by revealing my betrayal of the Republicans, I continued to wear my Nixon button whenever I was around them.  Despite feeling two-faced about the whole thing, I never returned the five dollars.  That decision was based upon the rationalization that if my aunt and uncle were prepared to bribe a future voter or attempt to buy votes for Nixon, they were as guilty of political graft and corruption as I was of being a freshman hypocrite.  As it turned out, I spent all five dollars over a period of two weeks on sodas at the Walgreens on Hohman Avenue in downtown Hammond.  Guilt did follow me, however.  When Nixon lost the election, I felt personally responsible, as though my not wearing his stupid campaign button had made him lose. Sodas after that election never again tasted as good.

     The Kennedys made me feel proud to be an American.  Their taste, style, elegance, eloquence, and beauty were lavish in the media, and no one could ever forget January, 1961 on that very sunny but bone-cracking, cold day watching the inaugural speech in black and white and hearing those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  Despite the cold day and the cold war with the Soviet Union, I felt happy that the President and his beautiful and accomplished wife, Jacqueline, represented us on the world stage where, by contrast, Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev looked like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.  By the spring of 1961 even the Sears catalog had pill-box hats, Chanel-like suits for women, and sheath dresses.  Girls at school were already copying Jackie’s daytime bouffant hairstyle.  The problem was that some girls copied Jackie’s evening formal do with hair piled high in elegant but inappropriate swirls that didn’t really go with pleated plaid wool skirts the girls wore to school or the white tennis shoes with white anklets.  The result over the next two years was that hairdos for girls became quite large, so that some, like Wanda Jenkins and Judy Sabo looked top-heavy, and wearing those tiny bows in front made it look as though the whole giant wad of hair was being held in place by the miniscule piece of ribbon, which might give way at any moment so that all that hair might just give way to fill the room with the ratted thatch.

     I also felt proud, because of the Kennedys, to be of Irish descent on my mother’s side. Despite Joseph Kennedy’s shady, amorous, and business dealings going back to the 1920’s, the Kennedy family did become the closest thing America had to royalty.  My Irish connection, remote as it may have been, somehow made me and my Irish friends and relatives feel a little closer to Hyannis Port and Martha’s Vineyard, and even the White House.  I knew nothing yet of Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was a year down the road.  Life was good.

     November 22 that year was a windy day of rain and gray skies in Northwest Indiana.  At school that day was another cafeteria lunch of macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs thrown in for good measure and a dessert consisting of mammoth cubes of chocolate cake and fudge frosting that must have been leftover rations from World War II.  Barney Blue was the only one who actually ate his.  The rest of us left ours on our plates at the tray return window behind which we imagined all that cake being recycled as future desserts or possible building materials to be sold eventually in hardware stores everywhere.

     French class with the plain, wiry, but effective Madame Rainey was after lunch.  She was an intelligent but very emotional woman who gave everything to her teaching, always assigning and later grading carefully the huge amounts of homework, expecting all of us to be consistently prepared, based upon work she had given to us.  She would walk up and down the aisles between rows of desks in order to stand over and gaze at (intimidate) whoever was called upon to respond to her questions.  Her nemesis was Jerry Nagdaman whose lackadaisical answer was always, “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know).  His total lack of concern for anything we were supposed to be learning in the class seemed to be an enormous blow to Madame’s sense of her own worth as a teacher, and twice that semester Jerry had already slumped down in his seat, falling asleep, not waking even at Madame’s high volume urging.  Both those times she became so distraught and ultimately enraged, that her retinas detached, leaving her temporarily blind, so that Sally Patterson in the front row had to push the intercom call button to summon the school secretary to lead Madame downstairs.  The principal would then drive her to the eye clinic.  After that for a day or two we would have a substitute teacher whose retinas Jerry could not detach by his annoying inertia.  Needless to say, Jerry was not in our French class second semester but rather enrolled  somewhat embarrassingly in the only other class with room for him, home economics, where Jerry was the only male, which by all accounts turned out to be more of a reward to him finally than a punishment.

     That November 22 as Madame Rainey was talking about French verbs and conditional tenses, the public address system came on.  We had all heard the drone of announcements so often during any given day that they generally drifted through our somewhat empty heads like air through whistles.  Mr. Witham, our school principal, repeated the words so that more of us tuned in to what he was saying.  “The President has been shot in Dallas, Texas.”  The numbing, if slow-moving effect of that sentence created silence in that room, broken only by the next announcement just moments later, “The President is dead.”  Madame Rainey had to lean back on her desk top, putting her hands over her face in a useless attempt to hide her tears.  As though on some kind of electrical circuit, sobs began to move through the rows of students, especially girls, some of whom were weeping openly, others simply crying, “No, No, it can’t be true.”  Walter Cronkite’s announcement played again on television that evening as he removed his glasses to wipe away tears, would be repeated many times over the next few days and help to bind us as a nation into a kind of shared grief seen through TV news coverage of so many sad faces of young and old alike.  Images of the young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children would continue to haunt the entire country and the world for decades to come.  We would all come to look back on that time as the day we lost our innocence as a nation and as a generation.

     I can still hear Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” played many times over the days after JFK’s death and how its deep melancholy summoned all that shared grief on a personal level in my remembering someone I had never met but of whom I somehow felt proud and someone whose very house I had visited on our senior class trip to Washington just a month before.   JB

About John

John Bolinger was born and raised in Northwest Indiana, where he attended Ball State University and Purdue University, receiving his BA and MA from those schools. Then he taught English and French for thirty-five years at Morton High School in Hammond, Indiana before moving to Colorado. He spends his winters in Pompano Beach, Florida. Besides COME SEPTEMBER, Journey of a High School Teacher, John's other books are ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood, and COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age, all available on Amazon.com as paperbacks and Kindle books. Alternately funny and touching, COME SEPTEMBER, conveys the story of every high school teacher’s struggle to enlighten both himself and his pupils, encountering along the way, battles with colleagues, administrators, and parents through a parade of characters that include a freshman boy for whom the faculty code name is “Spawn of Satan,” to a senior girl whose water breaks during a pop-quiz over THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Through social change and the relentless march of technology, the human element remains constant in the book’s personal, entertaining, and sympathetic portraits of faculty, students, parents, and others. The audience for this book will certainly include school teachers everywhere, teenagers, parents of teens, as well as anyone who appreciates that blend of humor and pathos with which the world of public education is drenched. The drive of the story is the narrator's struggle to become the best teacher he can be. The book is filled with advice for young teachers based upon experience of the writer, advice that will never be found in college methods classes. Another of John's recent books is Mum's the Word: Secrets of a Family. It is the story of his alcoholic father and the family's efforts to deal with or hide the fact. Though a serious treatment of the horrors of alcoholism, the book also entertains in its descriptions of the father during his best times and the humor of the family's attempts to create a façade for the outside world. All John's books are available as paperbacks and Kindle readers on Amazon, and also as paperbacks at Barnes & Noble. John's sixth and most recent book, Growing Old in America: Notes from a Codger was released on June 15, 2014.
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3 Responses to Remembering JFK and Being Young

  1. Tom Cushing says:

    John I can add a true story to the Day JFK was assassinated for you see I grew up with Joseph Svadlinka on the Northwest side of Chicago, we graduated from both grade school and high school together. Joe had a speech impediment, he stuttered, as kids, he was one of my best friends; well after high school Joe went on to study aeronautics at Purdue University and Notre Dame, graduating with a degree in Aeronautics. Upon graduating he joined the US Air Force and became a radio operator or communications expert, whatever it takes to be placed in the position of Air Traffic Control. Like the singer Mel Tillis, the use of a microphone, telephone, or any electronic instrument in hand, he spoke perfectly, without a problem. So he was working in the tower at Love Field when Air Force One, President Kennedy’s plane, landed. Someone else took Joe’s station allowing him to see President Kennedy disembark. Mind you, there is no levity in the Air Traffic Control Room, and when the word went around the room twenty minutes later that JFK had been shot, he could hardly believe it. Sadly we, our graduating reunion group, lost contact with Joe over the years; the last we heard was that he was working for National Airlines out of Florida. I fear the died in a plane crash, but we could never get confirmation from National Air.

    • John says:

      Thanks, Tom. You’ve personalized that event even further with both comments. The most powerful recollection I have of JFK is his having put his political career (and life) on the line for civil rights. He defied the George Wallace part of the population, all of whom seemed stuck in the year 1860. whining about the loss of their own “freedom” to abuse and revile black people.

  2. Tom Cushing says:

    Please reply to let me know if everything I mentioned came through. I can add to the story, such things as Joe was a twin and his sister won’t respond to request about her brother or ention the names of the schools we attended together.

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