Carr: Reflecting on JFK
Morning had already given way to early afternoon when the wooden PA speaker box affixed to the wall above the classroom doorway crackled to life. The school principal, speaking with a sadness in her voice that we hadn't heard before, told us that someone very important had been shot.
After the announcement, our teacher led me and my first grade classmates in an Our Father and a Hail Mary for John F. Kennedy.
Our voices joined those of millions of other school children offering up prayers for the president that day. They say God listens with special attentiveness to the prayers of children. I believe that is true. But He doesn't always do precisely what we ask. Instead, He acts according to His own wisdom.
School ended early. Home I went, confused about what was happening. The adults in my life were moody and emotional. My mother seemed frightened and angry at the same time. I don't know how my father felt. At the time, the only thing my six year old mind knew about John Kennedy was that every time he made a speech, my father yelled at our black-and-white Zenith Space Command TV. But now Dad was very quiet.
The next morning, as I always did on Saturdays, I bounded out of bed early to sit in front of the television and stare at the test pattern (note to the younger set: look it up), eagerly awaiting the advent of Deputy Dawg and Quick Draw McGraw and Bullwinkle. But those familiar friends abandoned me on this Saturday. In their place were somber looking people talking in sad, serious tones. It went on and on and on. On Sunday, more of the same. Later there was some excitement about someone else, a man named Oswald, getting shot.
I remember quite clearly watching television pictures of a horse-drawn caisson rolling through the streets of Washington, carrying a coffin draped with an American flag. But it wasn't until I saw the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups that it began to dawn on me that something really out of the ordinary had taken place.
I knew about horses, having seen them many times on television. Western heroes rode tall in the saddle, leaned forward into the danger, and never died. So why was this horse without a rider? What had happened to its hero? This wasn't right. Didn't the good guys always win?
It was in this fashion that history reached into the comfortable, cozy cocoon of my home and rocked my little child's world. It had never occurred to me that the adults surrounding me were not in full control of things. The revelation to the contrary was profoundly troubling. I didn't understand what was happening.
Now I'm 56 years old, and I still don't.
We Americans are a complex people. The part of our national character we like to speak about is the part that's honorable, courageous, and caring. It's very real. Our country serves as an inspiration to the world and a beacon of hope to the weary masses for a reason. Randy Newman once wrote that America is the best dream man has ever dreamed, and he was exactly right.
But a dream is not reality. To make any dream come true requires hard work, tough choices, and sacrifice. I think JFK was at his best when he said that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but rather what we can do for our country. And I think Americans are at their best when they act with that philosophy in mind. But "sacrifice" is a word you don't hear much anymore, at least not in any positive context.
The '60s were a time when dreamers loomed large on the national stage. Visionaries are not very practical people. In the short term their plans often jump the rails, sometimes with spectacular and tragic results. Yet it can be argued that all human progress over the long term comes about because of the hearts that dreamers inspire, the passions they enkindle and the actions they invigorate.
My mind often flies back to the memory of that wooden PA box hanging above the classroom door that dark day in 1963. Although I certainly didn't know it at the time, when the speaker blared with that awful announcement, it marked a dramatic point of change in my life, and in the life of our nation. A dreamer had died. Did the dream die with him?
I don't know whether that question has an answer yet. But I know it will have an answer. History always renders its judgment. What will that judgment be? And is it too late to affect the outcome?
Today that is a question worthy of reflection.