top of page

The Day America died

60 years after the death of JFK we still haven't recovered

My first slim memory of life was when I was about a year old.

My mother and father drove with me to New York in their pale blue Pontiac to visit friends. I remember passing through a tunnel on the Pennsylvania turnpike to get there. It is a faint, fleeting memory.

My first continuous memory revolves around the first time I saw my mother and father cry.

On October 13, 1962 President John F. Kennedy visited Louisville, Kentucky to campaign for Wilson Wyatt who was running for the U.S. Senate. It was part of a barnstorming event that took him across the country a few weeks before the midterm elections, stumping in several states for Democratic candidates. As he got off Airforce One in Louisville, the president said, “I just made a terrific speech, did you hear any of that? I want you to know we’re coming here to this state to elect Democrats."

Kennedy arrived at Standiford Field (Now Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport) and after he spoke for about a minute and a half, he then worked a rope line before attending a rally at Freedom Hall.

While working the rope line he spotted a young father with his toddler son, and as politicians do, Kennedy picked up the baby – approximately the same age as his own son – and smiled as he held him. The baby promptly urinated, and since it was a cloth diaper, the president was slightly soiled. And mom says I’ve been pissing on politicians ever since. I have no real memory of that, but dad recorded the incident for posterity in my baby book. Kennedy was the first president I ever met.

At Freedom Hall, President Kennedy spoke pointedly about the coming elections and what they meant for the country. "Are we going to drift along with a majority of the members of the Congress saying “no” to every proposal that we put forward, and having none of their own? Can you tell me one single piece of constructive legislation that has been suggested in the last 30 years by the Republican Party? Because I can’t. I can tell you what they’re against, but what are they for? Eighty-one percent of the members of the House of Representatives on the Republican side voted against aid for higher education." the Courier Journal reported.

That’s not what made mom and dad cry. That happened a little more than one year, one month and one week later, November 22, 1963. We all know what happened that day. I distinctly remember Walter Cronkite bringing us the horrifying news on our little black and white television set which sat in a brass stand so mom and dad could wheel it around the house.

The memory stuck in my mind is of Jackie walking off the plane in a blood-stained suit. On our little black and white television set it looked like mud or chocolate stains. I saw mom cry at this, and I remember distinctly thinking that I had better never spill chocolate on my clothes because it would make mom cry.

Tears were all we had nationally. Less than a week later we celebrated Thanksgiving and that day was set aside for Kennedy as well. There were pictures of his son, then known as John-John, saluting his father’s coffin as it passed. I watched it on television and repeated the gesture while my dad and mom cried.

In January, a grieving nation got the upbeat antics of the Beatles to relieve our shared national grief. It was a respite from the tragedy that has forever changed the world.

The “what ifs” have plagued politics, the nation and our world since 1963. We’ve seen other assassinations. We’ve seen leaders, despots and thieves come and go on the world stage. I’ve often heard John 3:19 in the King James Bible described as a metaphor for Kennedy. “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

Me? To this day it is hard for me to read anything about the Kennedy assassination. It is hard to think about the tragedy, the horror and the sadness. The endless possibilities for our country and our future seemingly evaporated when Kennedy died. I do not think the world has ever advanced beyond that horrible day in Dallas. Sure, we landed on the moon - a pet project of Kennedy's. We got Civil Rights - a Kennedy project signed into law by LBJ and passed by Congress. Today we still struggle with that issue - and voting rights. Progress since Kennedy? Well, we had a landmark event, Roe v. Wade, that made abortion legal. That came crashing down recently should anyone need to remember.

The fact is, today we are not as progressive as we were during the Kennedy administration and we're far more fractured.


Kennedy gave us hope.

He was a father with young children. He was a veteran - and hero of World War II. He came into office and in his inaugural address said, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

I grew up in a Catholic family that contained adults who went into politics and followed Kennedy's lead. They fought for Civil Rights. They marched with Martin Luther King Jr. They believed the best of this country was still to come.

Years later, I got to know, briefly, John Kennedy Jr. When we met, I told him that we were about the same age, and I figured one of us had to get the looks, while the other got the money and notoriety. That led to a laugh and good conversation at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during 1996. We spoke about his limited memories of his father, and the hopes for our future. I remember telling him the story of my dad meeting his dad and how his father picked me up. “Look out at the thousands of people here,” I said as we spoke in the arena. “I bet we’re the only two who could say we peed on your pop.” That got another laugh. He was an amiable sort, filled with his own hope.

I saw him a few times during the next three years. We shared a few things in common. He ran a magazine. I wrote for one. He was a pilot. I was a pilot. The last time I saw John Jr. was at Gaithersburg airpark in Maryland. He was working on his instrument rating. He died about a month later, if memory serves, when his private plane crashed.

It brought back all of the memories of childhood - all the fear and trepidation that I felt as I grew out of childhood and realized what we had lost as a country.

It is now 60 years since we lost Kennedy.

We hardly got to know him, and barely got to see what heights we could scale as a nation - and how we could influence the world in a positive manner.

The fact is, we never got the chance. My mom and dad cried that day. I did too - though I didn't know at the time why. My parents knew.

I know now and I still shed tears whenever I think of what we had then versus what we have now.


bottom of page