It is one of my earliest memories, sitting on Dad’s shoulders overlooking the crowd gathered at the South Bay Shopping Center in Redondo Beach, California, listening to a man speak. It was November 1, 1960 and I was so close to three years old that I was already practicing how to hold up three fingers.
Even at that young age, the electricity in the crowd told me something special was happening right there in front of us – right there in front of the J. J. Newberry department store.
And then the speech was over, everyone was smiling, and we were getting ready to leave, when there was a movement in the crowd and he walked by – passing within just a few feet. I could see him clearly from my high vantage point. Who is this man? I’d never seen a human being embody such energy.
And a few months later, Dad explained that we had a new President. For the first time, I understood that we lived in a country called the United States of America, run by a President. I was completely unaware of Eisenhower. But Kennedy – he was the first President in my life. And he had a little girl exactly my age, who had a pony right there at the White House.
We watched them on television, got a tour of the White House. Saw the kids in magazine photos. They were just like us.
I started school, morning kindergarten with Mrs. Koetz at Madison Elementary. Every day we took our places sitting cross-legged on the mat, then stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. One nation under God – ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
It was November, 1963. I was so close to turning six years old that I was eagerly anticipating my upcoming birthday party. And guess what? Dad told me that Caroline Kennedy was just about to turn six, too. She was turning six, then we’d have Thanksgiving, and then my birthday was right after that. I walked to school imagining what it would be like to have a birthday party at the White House. It would be fun to give pony rides to my friends. Dad would make a great President. It could happen.
And there we were, sitting cross-legged in our places on our kindergarten mat, the day barely started when Mrs. Koetz announced that President Kennedy had been shot and that school was being dismissed for the day. Mom came to pick me up. We drove home, getting there just in time to hear Walter Cronkite announce the unbelievable. Being just almost-six, I had no idea what all of this meant, but if Walter Cronkite was upset, it must be very, very serious.
We watched the funeral. I watched Caroline, wondering what on earth I would do if I lost my dad, wondering if she would have to cancel her birthday party, wondering if she would still get to keep the pony.
Fifty years ago. Funny, I barely remember my 6th birthday party, but I do remember everything else like it was yesterday. How we heard, how we felt, the saddest Thanksgiving ever.
We’ll see a lot of television coverage this week. We’ll live in all over again. And those who came after us will try to understand, but it will be difficult. The world changed on that day and America was never quite the same.
But looking back, what I am left with is not a sense of tragedy, but of enduring hope. Yes, we’ve been through a lot. We’ve become harder, more cynical, more fragmented as a nation. But I still believe there is hope for our future.
I don’t really remember that speech back in 1960 – hey, I was three. Or almost three. But something must’ve stuck because these words ring true to me today:
I think we have to begin another great movement forward. I think we have to build in this country a strong and vital and progressive society, one that ornaments the cause of freedom, one that demonstrates what freedom can do…I ask your help to join me in picking America up… – John F. Kennedy, November 1, 1960, in a campaign speech at the South Bay Shopping Center in Redondo Beach, California.