When Everything Changed

The Caisson Bearing Kennedy’s Body Enroute to the Cemetery

The Caisson Bearing Kennedy’s Body Enroute to the Cemetery

It was another blast furnace day in Southern California. To avoid the smell of charred walls and furniture in our apartment, Martine and I decided to spend the afternoon in the air-conditioned video library of the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. While Martine watched Gale Storm in episodes of “My Little Margie” (1952-55), I watched the funeral cortège of the assassinated John F. Kennedy (November 24, 1963).

What would have happened if Kennedy were never shot dead in the streets of Dallas? (Way back in the depths of my mind, I have never forgiven Texas for being the scene of that sad event.) America was stunned. The news seemed to go on all hours: Poor Walter Cronkite talked about Lee Harvey OsBURN being shot by Jack Ruby. I remember watching the coverage at the auditorium of the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, where the TV coverage was aired in the auditorium.

Blackjack, the Riderless Horse in JFK’s Funeral Cortege

Blackjack, the Riderless Horse in JFK’s Funeral Cortège

The President was buried with full military honors. Six grey horses pulled the artillery caisson on which his flag-draped coffin lay. Behind the caisson was a riderless black horse named Blackjack with stirrups and riding boots reverse, whose friskiness was in marked contrast to the grim pace of the procession. The muffled drums, the horns breaking out into the marche funèbre, the tolling bells of St. Christopher’s church, the grim faces of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the two surviving Kennedy brothers—all added up to one of history’s grinning death’s heads.

What would have happened if President Kennedy were not assassinated? Would the conservative insurgency that followed years later ever have happened? There are so many terms in the equation that follows that it is difficult to conclude anything with any degree of certainty. There was Viet Nam, Cuba, Communism, the Economy, even the Mafia to consider. I guess, in the end, whatever happened was fated to happen.

Certain images from that funeral have stuck in my mind. Among the heads of state, there was the gigantic Charles de Gaulle in the front line. There were endless women crying—women that looked different in that period over half a century ago. As the procession proceeded, it was followed on either side by hundreds, perhaps thousands of everyday people who wanted to miss nothing.

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, and Borges); things associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the months to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today, we’re at the letter “K,” for President John F. Kennedy.

I was a high school junior in a Catholic High School during the 1960 U.S. presidential election. The fact that a Catholic was daring to run again for the highest office in the land after the pasting that Al Smith had received in 1928 was wonderful to me. Richard Nixon with his dark jowls looked like a criminal; and people were saying that a Catholic president would become a mere catspaw to the Pope. (Since the pope at that time was John XXIII, that didn’t strike me as a bad thing.)

There was so much hope placed in John Kennedy: He was the best, the brightest of his generation. When he was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963, something died within me. Lyndon Johnson was in many ways a good president, but the war in Viet Nam grew bigger, uglier, and ever more unwinnable. And then after him came the beginnings of that horrible conservative anschluss that is still affecting us today.

After John was killed, I placed my hope in Bobby Kennedy. He wasn’t, to my mind, the shining beacon of his older brother, but he was good. I remember being woken up by a phone call on June 6, 1968 by my friend Peter. He had been filming at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby. The FBI collected Peter’s film (which, in any case, didn’t capture the shooting) and never returned it. I was never a supporter of Ted Kennedy for president, though I think he was a great senator. I think we all had had too much heartbreak with the Kennedy family.

Barack Obama ran in 2008 under the motto HOPE. That was my feeling about the Kennedys. Alas, that hope was dashed on the rocks of American politics.

Curiously, John Kennedy and I were similar in one odd respect: He had Addison’s Disease, an adrenal insufficiency that is part of my own panhypopituitarism.