A comment to my last post about the Kennedy commencement speech got me to reminiscing about JFK. This morning I listened to the speech he gave at San Diego State. It was strong on education, backed up with a lot of statistical data, and granted, came with a political slant. What struck me was that in those days there was an almost universal love for the man, a palpable pride in him because he was our President who represented commonly held, achievable, American ideals.
Another video I watched was the news coverage of his visit to San Diego by channel 8 TV. What astounded me was how informative the news used to be, compared to the dreck they serve up today. I was blown away by the fact-filled, descriptive narration of the news commentator. It dramatically illustrates the reality that we as a nation have truly been dumbed-down in the most egregious sense. That fact is a poignant wound in the American psyche, particularly in light of Kennedy’s vision for better education.
which I totally loved. I played it over and over, memorizing the bits and aping the accents of all the characters. I particularly enjoyed doing the JFK parts, and was known for saying, “Jackie’s fine right here!” and “No pregunta que su patria puede hacer para usted. Pero pregunta que usted puede hacer para su patria.” A group of us in the Thespian club actually staged our own version of The First Family for a school assembly, acting out some of the vignettes from the album. It was great fun and represented a commonly held attitude toward the President in those days, that he was authentically personal and even fun. From my high school annual of 1963 is this photo of one of the sketches. I’m playing JFK in the rocking chair.
My high school graduation was exactly one week after the SDSC commencement (it wasn’t a ‘U’ yet). I don’t remember the speeches given at my own commencement any better than I remember Kennedy’s speech. I was young, and my main memory was one of, “Gosh! It’s the President!”.
My next memory of JFK was 6 1/2 months later. I was a freshman at San Diego State and had been using one of the practice rooms in the old Music building, lost in some song I was trying to learn. I came out of the room and saw a friend of mine in the hall. His face was ashen. I asked him what was wrong. “Mike,” he struggled to speak, “the President has been shot.”
For some odd reason, I thought he meant the president of the college, Dr. Malcom Love. That would have been tragic enough. But as I walked downstairs and exited the building, I saw a crowd of students silently and motionlessly standing around a TV that had been set up in the quad. Going over to it and watching the news being reported on the shooting in Dallas, it was as if I had awakened from a dream, only to find myself in a nightmare. The president who had been shot was JFK.
I don’t know how long I stood there, hanging on every reporter’s word, but at some point we heard that the President was dead. Everyone was dumbstruck. With no concern for any of my classes (they were surely all cancelled anyway) in a daze I just walked the two miles back to my house. When I got home, I think it was my mother who first saw me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I sat on the couch without knowing what to do, and said, “The President has been shot.”
I think that marked a major change in American history and culture — at least it changed how I looked at the world. Politics and social issues became less idealistic, less noble and grew to be harsh and even deadly. Politics was no longer a matter of intellectual debate, but one of violent force and confrontation.
Less than 4 1/2 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I was in the Army, finishing infantry training at Ft. Polk, LA. Then, when I was home in San Diego on leave, shortly before shipping out to Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated during his campaign for the presidency. That was June 5th, 1968 — almost 5 years to the day when we heard JFK’s commencement address at San Diego State. Then in less than two weeks, I landed in Vietnam.
Throughout all this time I hoped things would get better. I was definitely part of the youthful idealism mentioned in the comment to my previous post. But now, after more than half a century has passed, just as I felt that terrible day when the President was killed, I feel like I have awakened from a dream, only to find myself in a nightmare. Things have only gotten worse. Those who were there, back in those days, know it’s true.