Today, although few seem to remember, is the fifty-second anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I was a high school senior then, a cadet officer at Eastern Military Academy, a member of Troop A, its cavalry unit, and also the illustrator for our school newspaper, the Guidon. I was supposed to be at equestrian classes during the afternoon but didn’t go because I had to complete the illustrations for the edition of the Guidon about to go to press. The rest of the corps was at drill practice. I had the radio on in the little office that we used for school publications and will always remember the announcement: “The President of the United States has been shot!” I quickly went to our school public address system, grabbed the mike and shared the news. A few minutes later, our Commandant of Cadets, Colonel John B Hoar, found me, grabbed me and started yelling at me for making such a horrible joke. He was a personal friend of the president whom earlier in the year we had presented with a school saber, the one carried on the riderless horse at his funeral.
A few days later I was selected to lead the cadet honor guard at the requiem mass for the fallen president held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, although perhaps it was St. Patrick’s, it’s been over half a century and I can’t quite recall. I had to learn the special slow motion drill en route to the event and teach it to the other members of our cadet honor guard. We were supposed to be just a temporary contingent, rotated with regular military personnel, but the military officer in charge never arrived, so the honor undeservedly fell to me.
I’d not been a fan of President Kennedy. Like today, it was a time of very polarized politics although the so called Cuban Missile crisis had polished the president’s image with many of those disappointed with his conduct of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Today, I know that the Cuban Missile Crisis victory had been, if not pyrrhic, then highly distorted, it had been sealed by a secret deal designed mainly to improve the president’s image, but we didn’t know that then, nor did we know how normal such deception had been throughout our history (more a branch of jingoist fiction than anything else), a form of self-delusion from which we seem to suffer more than ever now. But during the days that followed the whole country had seemingly reunited, a reunion quickly re-splinter over the war on poverty, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
To many at the time, November 22, 1963, marked a turning point of some kind although I don’t see it that way. We’ve had way too many turning points in recent decades. It was sad, and tragic, and agonizing, it was memorable, more than most days. But turning point, I think not. It was just a link in the long cycle of perpetual enmity and violence to which our world has been subject, seemingly forever. A world captured artistically by George Orwell, except that 1984 seems to have been with us for centuries.
If that day held any lessons for us, they are long gone. Perhaps that’s why its memory is so faded.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2015; all rights reserved