A great many of us can boast of having seen a celebrity at one time or another. This is not surprising as our society is very good at generating celebrities. Actors, politicians, business people, athletes, entertainers and multiple other areas of endeavor produce faces which we are all able to recognize in a crowd. Just get together with a group of people and get the conversation going; soon you will be putting together a list of famous people who have passed before the collective eyes of the assembled throng.
In my sixty five years I can boast of seeing a small horde of people who could be googled and found to be of some significance. President Dwight Eisenhauer, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (back when Jagger could move like Jagger), Gypsy Rose Lee, Joey Bishop, Bob Hope, Diana Ross and many others have fallen within my range of vision. None of these, however, had anything like the impact which I received from seeing President John F. Kennedy.
An event such as this was not likely to be all that noteworthy to me, given the staunchly Republican nature of the home in which I grew up. My father was actually more or less Republican and loved to annoy my mother with his luke-warmness. He would also do the lukewarm thing with me in order to make me think about what I believed rather than simply receive it from my Mom. My mother, on the other hand, lent a new richness to the term “staunch”. The woman was so conservative that she would only fly in airplanes with two right wings. As a consequence of this she travelled a lot on the bus.
When the presidential election of 1960 was approaching, our household was all about Richard Nixon. Nixon had served two terms as vice president under Eisenhauer whom we revered, being a military family. Nixon had gone toe-to-toe with Nikita Khrushchev in the ‘Kitchen Debates’ and not only skunked the Russian Premier but even earned his respect. Khrushchev later stated that he instructed the Communist Party of the United States to do what little it could to get Kennedy elected, believing that he would have an easier time dealing with him than with Nixon. Leonid Brezhnev was later to discover how accurate Mr. Khrushchev’s impression of Nixon was.
It was therefore inconceivable in my household that Kennedy could win the election. Besides the fear that a Catholic president would take orders from the Pope there were other negatives in the eyes of my parents. From my Dad’s point of view nobody who commanded a PT boat and allowed it to be sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer deserved anything other than a court martial. This was like allowing a Corvette to be outmaneuvered and T-boned by a pick up truck. Dad put it down to Kennedy getting off because he was a son of the Eastern royalty with all of it’s connections in the halls of the powerful. There may be some truth to that, but it is also fair to point out that the Kennedys and the Bushes and a great many other sons of the notables stepped up then and placed themselves in harm’s way. You don’t see much of that anymore.
My mother hated all Democrats on principle. She wasn’t quite sure exactly what that principle was, but she used it to hate Democrats anyway. Mom was fiercely independent and did not like to see the government take care of people who, in her opinion, were perfectly able to look after themselves. Mom grew up in Hazard Kentucky during the Great Depression, and my grandfather worked in the mines or on the railroad, or repaired washing machines or sold men’s suits or generally did whatever he could do to keep the family fed and clothed. My grandmother, according to Mom, was a wizard at making a little stretch far enough to keep the family out of the grip of extreme hunger. Because my mother’s family eked their way through the Depression in this manner with nobody to help them, she reasoned that everybody else could do the same. John F. Kennedy and the Democrats represented a different point of view, and that Mom could never forgive.
As the elections approached a great dread fell over the house. Kennedy and Nixon were virtually tied in the polls. Kennedy did well in the first ever presidential debate and his youth and beautiful wife and young family appealed to an America which had endured the depression and four years of hellish war in Europe and the Pacific. We waited in nervous anticipation for the day when we would know if the nation was in good hands (Nixon) or on the road to perdition (Kennedy).
The day came, and went. The election was virtually tied and day after day we waited as paper ballots were counted across the country. Finally, when the dead voters of Chicago cast their ballots for the second and third times, Kennedy was declared the winner. On an interesting side note, I have read that a few months later a reporter uncovered the extent of the ballot box stuffing in Cook County and elsewhere and proposed to go public with it. Richard Nixon asked him not to do so. Nixon and Kennedy personally liked each other and Nixon told the reporter that it would harm America to drag the thing out in that manner. “For the good of the country” Nixon said, “let the thing stand as it is”. Can you imagine such a thing happening today?
So Kennedy was elected President and the reign of Camelot began. It was indeed a magical time. We all fell in love with the elegant and beautiful First Lady and we also adopted Caroline and ‘John John’ as children of our own. In spite of the President’s debilitating back pain that was a result of his war injuries he conveyed a sense of vigor that appealed to the new generation of citizens who were deciding to run the post-war country their own way. We loved him so much that we forgave him for traveling all the way to the city of Berlin to declare to the world that he was ‘a jelly doughnut’. He meant to say that he and everyone who identified with and stood with the citizens of Berlin during a particularly tense period in the cold war was in fact a citizen of that city. Trying to say that in German, however, resulted in it being somewhat lost in translation. In those days we allowed a President to commit a faux pas and not hound him to the grave with it. The people of Berlin knew what he meant and so did we.
Because of all of this I was very excited when we heard that President Kennedy was scheduled to give the commencement address to the graduating class of San Diego State University. I had seen President Eisenhauer years earlier, when I had to climb up onto a rooftop in downtown San Diego in order to see over the crowd. Now, the new President was coming and even my Mom showed a little interest in what he would have to say. That was how it stood until the President’s itinerary was announced, and it was at that point that our interest in the event went through the roof. The President would be riding in a motorcade up El Cajon Blvd. from some point downtown all the way to the college, a couple of miles in all. My junior high school was located on the motorcade route, and I would be in class when he came by.
My school was not about to miss this opportunity to expose the student body to an event like a presidential visit. For me however it just got better. I was in the Boy’s Chorus that year, initially as a piano accompanist. My disappointing musical aptitude and general laziness soon resulted in me singing in the bass section where I performed reasonably well. That year we were singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the city competition and it was a perfect match to be singing this patriotic song for the President.
Accordingly on June 6, 1963, the day of the presidential visit, risers were put into place on the lawn of our school within spitting distance of the sidewalk. We had rehearsed this song a gazillion times for the competition, but today we approached it with a fervor yet unheard from our Chorus. We would only be singing the last stanza of the song and the refrain because the President would only be in front of us momentarily as he rolled slowly down the street towards the speech that he was here to deliver.
As the hour approached the student body was turned out onto the lawn and lined up in orderly ranks. We of the Chorus filed out and took our places on the risers and the interminable wait began. The wait, as it turned out, was indeed terminable and we could tell by the excited buzz which began to circulate among the students off to our left, and also by the divided actions of the teachers who were trying both to keep order and to contain their own excitement, that the President was getting close. Our director, Mr. Julian, got our attention focused on the job at hand and we hummed our notes and prepared to sing. Little did we know that we were preparing for an event that would impact our lives for as long as those lives would persist. When the hood of the presidential convertible appeared in the street to our left we began to sing the familiar lines, and our voices swelled as HE came closer to our position.
Then the course of history changed. The sun stood still in the sky. The ‘O’ turned upside down. The President of the United States of America; the most powerful person in the world, reached forward to tap his driver on the shoulder and said something to him. The driver, in response, stopped the car. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy then stood up in the back of that convertible and faced us while we sang that song and would not leave until we had completed it.
Some of us choked up but enough kept it together well enough that we sang that song better than we ever had before. Mr. Julian, concerned that the performance of his career be perfect, was focused on us and not the street. He was aware that something extraordinary was happening however and when we had held the last “amen” to a point of richness and power which he had not been able to wring out of us all semester he gave us the sign to cut. Mr. Julian then turned and his jaw dropped. President Kennedy couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away from him applauding his Boy’s Chorus. At that point one of the secret service agents motioned for the motorcade to get underway and we saw the convertible begin to roll once again eastward down El Cajon Blvd. Less than a mile in that direction is Hoover High School and we felt proud to learn that the President did not accord Hoover the same honor. I am guessing that the secret service escorts suggested that he never pull that stunt again!
Six months later President John F. Kennedy would be lying in his grave in Arlington National Cemetery and shocked and unbelieving Americans would be mourning the loss of him as if he was a son of their own. My Republican household cried that day and we comforted each other and looked for someone to hit back at because we felt individually attacked by that event. A pathetic little loser who survived the assassination by only a couple of days was all we were given, although I am certain that the real story has never been and will never be told.
Still, to this day I cannot tell this story with dry eyes. Something bigger than myself and my individual wants and issues happened that day. The leader of much of the developed world and a good deal of that which was not developed stopped to hear some teenage boys sing a song of fire and death and struggle for the purpose of freedom. It is one of my great satisfactions that I was able to be a little part of that.