How in the world can it be 50 years ago since I, a freshman in college, attended this event. I remember it so clearly it could have happened last week. What I do not remember is that it was so close to the day Kennedy was assassinated. I was able to shake hands with him that day, and two other times when he was still only a candidate. It was a thrill each time. He appeared just as I was evolving from a teenager into a young adult, barely over my terrible crush on Elvis Presley. He was a transition figure in my life, caught between my love for a teen-age idol and the discovery that the world is big, and unpredictable, and flawed.
As does anyone who lived through that assassination, I remember exactly where I was when I got the news. Jeannette and I were sitting at the kitchen table at lunch. The phone rang and Mike went to answer it. He called to us that his friend Jack (now deceased) was telling him the president had been shot. Always ready to poo-poo anything that Mike said, I remarked that if it had really happened it would surely be on TV. The words were barely out of my mouth when the screen on the black and white TV that sat on top of the refrigerator flickered. Walter Cronkite appeared as the words "we interrupt this program ......" filled the air like a black cloud. That black cloud consumed every moment of our lives for the next several days.
I was particularly absorbed by every detail of the assassination. I hauled the big recliner up to the living room TV and barely moved away from it for days. The rest of the family came and went, but I was mesmerized. I watched Lee Harvey killed in front of my eyes, and then repeated so many times I can still see it now......Jack Ruby stepping out in front of the camera, the popping sound of the gun, the chaos. I saw Jackie Kennedy's black horse follow the hearse, empty boots in the stirrups to symbolize a fallen warrior. I watched John-John's salute, the crowd in the Capitol rotunda filing past the casket, Jackie kneeling there with the children. Later, I saw the eternal flame lit at the grave site........not so eternal that the wind didn't blow it out a short time later.
After days and days in front of the TV I finally turned away. There my memory fades. How did I go back to the business of my life? I don't remember. Tucked away in a cardboard box in the spare bedroom upstairs is the original copy of the Bangor Daily News on the day after the assassination, along with a campaign poster, and the band from a plastic "straw" hat I wore that said Kennedy for President. There are numerous magazines dedicated to the assassination, and then the endless special editions about the Kennedy family. I hear people say that his death ended an innocent era, and I believe that it did. Certainly it did for me. After the optimism and upbeat mood of the American people that characterized his short presidency the country seemed to dissolve into riots, demonstrations, protests, and more assassinations. Americans became nervous, angry, filled with feelings of a betrayal they couldn't quite define.
Then, I may be describing only my own transformation, my own disappointment that my idea of an optimistic, honest America was, and had been, a lie I told myself.