For a generation of us, he was the gallant knight — handsome, brave, smart and charming. The smile, the athleticism, the sweet way he showed his affection for Caroline and little John-John…all of it captivated us.
John F. Kennedy was our touchstone to Camelot. King Arthur in a pin-striped suit and oxford shirt.
And then he was gone in an instant. A tragic hero felled by an assassin’s bullet.
The mind boggles to acknowledge that yes, it was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, when everything changed. Our national psyche was damaged, some still think beyond repair. Our innocence ended as JFK slumped in that limousine, and dazed and stunned, we went through that weekend weeping for him — and for ourselves. Camelot was gone.
All these years later, this date on the calendar still has the emotional pull to carry us back to that surreal time, and make us pause to remember exactly where we were when we heard. In my life, the only sequel, so far, has been Sept. 11, 2001.
In our little Cape Cod-style house on Nov. 22, 1963, I’d just gotten our toddler down for her nap. I’d invited two college friends for lunch and a reunion. And there we were, three young mothers about to dig into our lunch and our giddy recollections, when Rose, my next-door-neighbor, appeared at the door, ashen and clearly shaken.
“They’ve shot the president,” she told us, barely getting the words out.
Nothing registered in those first seconds. Nobody got it. But one flip of the kitchen’s black and white TV set and there it was: a country in the earliest stage of anguish and disbelief.
On some bizarre impulse, I ran up the steps to look in on Jill. I needed to know that she, at least, was safe. Now, with hindsight, I recognize that race up the steps as one of my first real connections to motherhood itself: I was thinking first, and instinctively, of our child.
My college friends had similar reactions. They left for home and family, not knowing why, but knowing that they had to be there. We’ve often said that from that moment on, our period of grace was over. Camelot was gone, vanished in a flood of indelible images, most strikingly the nobility of Jackie Kennedy, beautiful and brave; the unforgettable flashcube moment of John-John Kennedy saluting; the ghostly riderless horse.
It had lasted only a thousand days, the Kennedy White House, but so many of us had bought into it. The magic had seeped into our lives, giving us vicarious elegance and vibrancy.
We would miss the excitement of it all: a dashing family, larger than life, working hard, playing hard, giving us a glimpse of how glorious life — and America — could be. It wasn’t about politics as much as it was about hope.
And in the flash of an assassin’s bullet, it was gone. In its wake still come the endless debates about whether we are there now, or ever will be.
How we embraced our president when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Or when he invited us to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, tap the ocean depths.”
And how we mourned when that light was extinguished.
Yes, the Beatles came. And so did hippies. The civil rights movement. Vietnam. Protests. The first moon shot. And of course, 9/11.
History moved on. The world did not stop when JFK was laid to rest.
But nothing was ever quite the same.
And so many years later, there are still those of us who remember … and mourn for those thousand golden days.
And if you’re old enough, maybe you’ll remember, too. Maybe you’ll get a flashback of that time when we were supposed to ask what we could do for our country, not the reverse.
And no matter what your politics, maybe you’ll stop for a moment or two to remember that “…brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.” ••