President's Day weekend is almost here. We honor two of our Presidents, our 1st- George Washington and our 16th, Abraham Lincoln. However, when I thought about the post for February, I gravitated toward our 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy.
I was born in the middle of John F Kennedy's short 2 1/2 year presidency. It was a day where people remember the precise moment they heard the news of his assassination. The day was November 22, 1963. In my lifetime, there are two days such as that: 1) the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and 2) the terrorist attacks of 911 on September 11, 2001.
People remember where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963. It was the shots that rang out in Texas and ultimately across a nation that ended the life of John F Kennedy. I was born on November 27, 1962; I was almost a year old. There are scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to his life, presidency, legacy and assassination; I am not a scholar and the mere mention of his name in a post leaves me with a humble responsibility to handle the subject with respect and gratitude.
There are four reasons the 35th President was the topic for this post: 1) my mother's side of the family had a profound respect and awe for the President; they cried along with a nation at his death, 2) within the last year, listening to a book on tape, two things stood out for me- the heroism he performed in WWII, 1943 and the "Camelot" atmosphere created during his Presidency, 3) Pictures from a book, "JFK Remembered, An intimate Portrait by His Personal Photographer" by Jacques Lowe and 4) a picture of he and my aunt taken in Lake Tahoe in the 1950's.
The last couple of years I have scanned old pictures from my grandfather (Papa's) collection into an external hard drive in order to preserve them in books for relatives. The next book I am working on is his pictures from WWII. Papa was a WWII survivor who was present at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When I listened to the book on tape about John F Kennedy, his involvement in WWII struck a chord. Perhaps it was scanning the old pictures but I found myself learning something new. Kennedy was aboard a Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109 when it was struck and later sunk. Because Kennedy was on the Harvard College swim team, his skills proved critical in saving the lives of crew members and surviving days before his rescue.
This part of the book drew me in on a human level as I imaged Kennedy as a son and colleague to his shipmates. The next human element that drew me in was Kennedy's marriage. The "Camelot" image was in conflict with reality. Like the above story in pictures from 1963, the context of the day is important. "Camelot" from King Arthur's court was a popular musical on broadway in the early 1960's. I read that one of Kennedy's college friends at Harvard wrote one of the songs and both he and Jacqueline enjoyed listening to it each evening before they went to bed. The Kennedy administration optimized that imaginary world, in part, by an interview by Jacqueline herself paralleling her husband with the characters from Camelot.
Coming from a backdrop of racial inequalities, our involvement in the Vietnam War, the history of WWII, economic and worldwide tensions, John F Kennedy came at just the right time. His youth, wealth, athleticism and the beautiful, famous people that surrounded him offered a contrast to the realities of the day. People needed an image of hope and Kennedy provided it.
As I turned each page of "JFK Remembered-an intimate portrait by His personal photographer" I was struck with just how human he was. The family pictures were not that unlike most families. Loving parents who hoped for the best for their children. Holidays and time spent with loved ones. A profound friendship with his younger brother, Robert Kennedy who would also be assassinated only 5 1/2 years later. The pictures in this book, however, showed a young family with all of the hope of a bright and promising future. I valued the vulnerability these pictures showed.
Papa didn't talk about the war much but in the final years of his life, he told me about standing on the ammunition ship as a Japanese plane was flying by; he made eye contact with the bomber-a site he will never forget nor did he forget the friends and fellow Navy comrades he lost that day.
"The pictures of 1963" began with a picture of the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr- Pastor and Civil Rights leader who would be assassinated in 1968. I was six. This is the world I was born into. King talked about a dream of equality and pointed to a savior of salvation.
Although the stories and contexts are different today, the same record plays- that is one of sin. We are a fallen people with very human flaws. Very few of us will be able to shine a bright light onto political issues as a president will but each of us can shine a small light in our communities and within our families and the environment around us. Yes- we are human but we can extend grace to others as it has been given to us. Will you be the change people see?
A person who searches for depth and beauty in the simple things.