With 50 years now elapsed since JFK’s slaying, we can at last pull the plug on that terrible event’s life supports and finally extinguish what little remained of its fading force among the living. Sure, a number of us who have memories of Nov. 22, 1963, will still be around 10 years from now when the Kennedy assassination turns 60, but there won’t be so much conscious reflection of it then.
As I recall, JFK’s first impact in my life came a year before he died, during the summer of 1962. I was all of 6, spending a week at Nora’s home in a more outlying and less-developed suburb of the sprawling, ugly metropolis where I grew up. Nora, a co-worker of my mother at the drug store, commuted rather far to the job, which helps to explain how her place could represent a getaway treat to me. The youngest of her four sons was my age, and he and I became pretty good friends. When parents were away at work, Nora’s oldest kid, daughter Lorraine, enforced law in the home.
The kids were products of a mixed union: father from Britain, mom from Ireland. Culturally, Nora’s side dominated. They were an Irish-Catholic family.
You could say that I, too, had sprung from a mixed marriage: staunchly Republican father and Democrat-leaning mom. So when a couple of Nora’s older boys asked me one day to declare whether I had been for Nixon or for Kennedy, odds were evenly split that I’d answer wrong. When I said “Nixon,” they beat me up a little.
I honestly don’t remember if I tattled, but Lorraine did find out. I watched through a window as she literally took a belt to those naughty boys. My first foray into presidential politics, and already I was acquiring faith in justice.
A few months later, when my family changed residences and I had to change schools, I found myself in the first grade class of one Mrs. Anthony, a humorless, overwrought, relentlessly unsmiling woman who was also much fatigued. She would yell at us about how much grief we were causing her on top of all the nights her baby was keeping her up.
I was terrified of Mrs. Anthony. Determined to escape her notice, I dispensed with my mastery of worksheets from my previous schooling and started copying the work of the girl next to me. I was hoping everyone was performing the work her way, and I’d be safe in being identical. Unfortunately, the girl had no concept of anything. When my papers started coming back all red-marked and with low scores, I stopped doing my worksheets altogether, my next fruitless strategy for flying low.
Mrs. Anthony had my mother in for a conference. Afterward, members of my family talked me into simply doing my work and trying not to worry so much about Mrs. Anthony. I also felt shame.
My self-esteem was still only half recovered when, on Oct. 31, 1962, I donned my Halloween costume. As usual, it was one of those mass-produced cheapies from the drug store where my mother worked, but I don’t think they ordered many units of this item. Was it I who chose to go as President John F. Kennedy? I don’t remember.
A cheesy JFK face rubber-banded to my head, the words “Mr. President” printed boldly in white on the drawn-in lapel of my black, drawn formal suit, that night I had the most gratifying trick-or-treating experience of my entire childhood. Adults who answered their doors offered me not only candy, but some strange but wonderful kind of respect as well. For years afterward, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my unhesitating answer was, “president.”
Although I was saddling myself with a dopey, unattainable career goal, at least my recovery from my Mrs. Anthony terror was now complete.
I was only 7 a year later when Nov. 22 rolled around, but it hit me pretty hard. As consolation during the ensuing months, my mother brought me numerous commemorative items from the ample shelf space suddenly devoted to things JFK at the drug store. I had slick-papered photograph books, a mounted bust of the late president, and an album of his recorded speeches.
A few years later I came across my old Kennedy costume in storage. Now there was a weird moment.
Beyond producing an immediate emotional impact, the assassination influenced my personal politics over the next couple of decades. I suspect I was moving past it by 1990, however. That summer I saw a concert poster for a hardcore punk band irreverently named “Dead Kennedys,” and I confess I wasn’t offended.
Rob Ruth is editor of the Chieftain.