It seemed an ordinary Friday. I was twenty, in my first real job, with no view of the future. And there I sat, typing another sheet of numbers, while, several secretaries’ positions down from mine, a group gathered around the desk of my friend Fran. They were listening to the tiny transistor radio Fran kept on her desk. Over their shoulders I heard the words spoken in that radio’s voice: President Kennedy was dead.
For the next four days, I sat sobbing with my mother and my 14-year old sister on the same TV room couch where we had watched I Love Lucy and Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle and Father Knows Best. Our faces soaked in tears, we saw Jackie with the blood on her skirt. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald get murdered, live. We held each other and cried through the sad journey along Pennsylvania Avenue to the rotunda, heard the hollow clopclop of the riderless horse that led the cortege. We were still there, helplessly sad, when they put him in the ground and lit the eternal flame.
What I didn’t know, until hindsight, was how much I was changing as we sat huddled there. I was crossing from the self-limiting presumptions of the Eisenhower years to the expectations of the new generation JFK had been talking to. It was dawning on me — watching re-runs of his speeches and his triumph over Khrushchev in Cuba, of his stand for civil rights and his knowledge of the broader world– that I had not accepted his invitation to be part of something bigger than myself.
A couple months later, I left the U.S. for almost a year. I hitchhiked by myself through Europe, my head filling with awesome notions of culture and civilization and history. Interest and admiration for Americanism was as ubiquitous as JFK’s picture, despite the ongoing anger over the war in Vietnam, and I felt lucky that I’d been born in the country that could, more than any other, design the future.
The Beatles were rampant when I got back. Protest music and anti-war marches riled the land. Two more assassinations would break our hearts. The war would take another eleven years to end. My generation made it stop, the same generation that brought down Richard Nixon when he needed bringing down, the same generation to whom the torch was passed when Kennedy slapped the baby boom on the butt.
I think back on it now, from this end of the path that leads from that November day to this one. I know more about character flaws now—mine, Kennedy’s, America’s. But the torch that was passed to a new generation of Americans is still ours– to lift above the darkness or to set aflame the hate that splits the world.
Kennedy taught the whole world something about being American:
That leadership is our assignment. Not to push, to lead. The flame may not be eternal, but it is still ours.
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