It would be hard for anyone outside of my age, ethnic, social, and cultural context to understand how November 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is etched on my soul. There is no adequate metaphor: etched, branded, tattooed. The day, the death, the memories will always be there, always be a part of me.
I think in part it's because John Kennedy, "Jack" we liked to call him, as if he were a friend of the family, it's because he represented what we longed to be. I was from a struggling, working-class Irish-Catholic family. John Kennedy came from the same roots--the exiled Irish, streaming out of famine and post-famine Ireland, where there was massive death, disease, and starvation everywhere. And then trying to find your way in a new society. By the time I was born in 1948, we had come a long way--90 years after our immigrant great grandparents came to America's shores. We had a lot of wonderful gifts: our tight Catholic religious community, our large and loving families and extended families ( I joke that my parents and I didn't have friends--we had relatives. It is the truth!). But we also had terrible problems with alcoholism, untreated anxiety and mental illness, and we faced plenty of prejudice. Very few people acknowledge that now, but it was the truth. Catholics, even in the 1950's and 1960s, were victims themselves of discrimination and prejudice (and we were full of that same vice towards others, I am sad to say). John F. Kennedy seemed like a vision to us, of what could be: he was more handsome, richer, better educated--yet full of his own problems, we later discovered, many far worse than our own ills and sins.
When I heard around 2:05 PM that November 22nd, that Black Friday, sitting in my religion class as St. Joseph High School in Cleveland--when Brother Stanley Matthews came over the PA system and told us, "Boys, he's been shot. The president has been shot," we were stunned beyond belief. It was as if my own Father had been shot. I remember how we prayed for the next half hour, when Brother Stanley came on again and said, "Boys, he's gone, he's dead. Pray for him, his family. Pray for yourselves and the world."
And that is what we did.
We, of that generation, knew a lot of terrible deaths, and we took them personally. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy. And then the Vietnam War, and cousins, classmates, friends getting killed: Tommy Fitzpatrick, Buddy Chasser, Steve Shields.
So I am marked by this day. I know my cousin Maggie Brock is also deeply marked. As are so many in my family, among my friends, in my generation.
Five years after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Brian Wilson and I were traveling in Greece during our spring break (we were Notre Dame students studying abroad in Austria). It was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. Brian and I were invited into a modest home near Matala, Crete. The man of the house wanted to show us his bouzouki and tell us of relatives in America. On the wall of his home were two pictures: Pope John XXIII, and John F. Kennedy.
Pope John would not have been his religious leader, for this man was Greek Orthodox. And JFK would not have been his president. But there it was--two heroes. Yes, we know JFK's clay feet, we know his catalogue of sins and faults. But I was inspired by him to try to make the world a better place. And his assassination on this day 51 years ago is etched indelibly into my heart.
Postscript: Pat Denny, a friend of mine, read this blog entry and sent me some of her own reflections on that fateful day. Pat was a freshman at Regina High School in South Euclid on November 22, 1963. Here is what she wrote me--I appreciate it so much!
"We were in an assembly. Principal (Sr. Mary Marthe) interrupted the program when the news was first announced. The program resumed, and later she returned and ended the program when the news of his dying came in. All our buses came earlier than usual, as I'm recalling. We all prayed the rosary all the way home from Regina to 260th bus stop in Euclid. Overwhelming sadness and grief punctuated that entire weekend, and for many days after as we followed the TV coverage. We were at such an impressionable age when it happened. Our hearts still ache when we recall it all."