Last month on vacation, I visited Cape Cod, viewed the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port from a tour boat in Nantucket Sound and quietly reflected on my now-distant coming of age.
For millions of us, that time came during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and in the tumultuous years that followed.
The “Camelot” legend and politics aside, JFK holds a grip. I still have a “Kennedy for President” campaign button from my boyhood, when I was enthralled by the Irish Catholic connection.
I was 15, leaving a sophomore Latin class, when I heard that the president had been shot. At 17, on a senior class trip to Washington, D.C., I had the honor of placing a wreath on Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
I have twice visited the assassination-related Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and sat mesmerized on the grassy knoll below, contemplating the horror in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Yes, I've read a few conspiracy-theory books.
Five years ago in Omaha, I met Kennedy speechwriter and adviser Theodore Sorensen, the Nebraska native who had finally written a book about Kennedy.
Sorensen, who died in 2010, wrote that although he had never embraced the conspiracy theories, “it is equally hard to believe that none of JFK's enemies was behind his death.”
At a party honoring Sorensen at the home of former Rep. John Cavanaugh, a layer cake was topped by the two most memorable words from Kennedy's inaugural speech: ASK NOT.
I asked not if Sorensen wrote the soaring words that followed that phrase — he had consistently said the speech belonged to the man who gave it.
But I did ask about Vietnam and a war that killed 11 from my high school, including four from my class of 1966 — among 58,000 other Americans. Would Kennedy have pursued the course that his successor did?
“JFK was too smart,” Sorensen told me, “to get bogged down in a land war in Asia.”
Historians still debate what Kennedy would have done, though a planned cut in defense spending had been announced days before the assassination. It didn't happen.
Almost all people 55 or older remember where they were upon learning of the president's death. Some in the Midlands, from the famous to the less widely known, had connections to the president, accidental or otherwise.
» Richard Swanson of Mead, Neb., said his eyes met with JFK's two or three minutes before the president was killed.
Dick was living in Dallas and working a film-projection job at the old Baker Hotel on Commerce Street in the heart of downtown when he heard that the president's motorcade was approaching.
“I went out and was probably eight feet from him when he passed by,” Swanson recalled last week. “He looked right at me and smiled. I'll never forget that.”
The Swansons lived three doors from Officer J.D. Tippit, who was shot and killed that afternoon by presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. J.D. always waved, Dick said, and their sons played together.
FBI agents later visited the audio-visual store where Swanson worked, asking to confirm the timing of a section of movie film — the Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination.
“I had it in my hands,” Swanson said. “Then I gave it to our technician.”
» George Sullivan, a 1962 graduate of Creighton Prep and a future president of the high school, was studying in a Jesuit seminary in Minnesota when Kennedy was slain.
The future priest had met JFK as a senator in the late 1950s when he visited Omaha for a partisan event. In 1960, George accompanied his parents to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where his father was a Nebraska delegate.
George obtained a delegate's badge and stood cheering on the convention floor when Nebraska voted, and again when Wyoming's vote put JFK over the top to secure the nomination.
“The three most exciting events of my life,” he said last week, “are being ordained, attending a small Mass with Pope John Paul II and being there when Kennedy's nomination went over the top that night.”
Friday, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, the Omaha Irish Cultural Center will hold a noon remembrance at Memorial Park. Praying the benediction will be Father George Sullivan.
» Former Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone, who served four terms in Congress, has said his service on the House Assassinations Committee was “the highlight of my congressional career.”
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite called Thone “the conscience of the committee.”
In 1979, a majority of the committee voted, based largely on the testimony of acoustical experts as to the number of shots fired, that Kennedy probably had been killed as the result of a conspiracy, though unspecified.
Others have disagreed with the acoustical analysis. Thone, who was governor by the time the committee voted, had his name listed among dissenters.
“I would say the committee started with the thought that there probably was a conspiracy of one sort or another,” Thone once told me. “But I'm convinced that hard evidence never disclosed any such conspiracy — no way, form or shape.”
» Letitia Baldrige grew up in Omaha and became social secretary to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as an author, entrepreneur and etiquette columnist. I spoke to her in 1995 when she was in Omaha for the 100th anniversary of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben.
Six months before the assassination, she left the White House.
“Tish” was having lunch in Chicago when she heard the tragic news, and she flew that night to Washington, where people at the White House “walked around like ghosts,” not speaking.
She recalled a dazed Jackie Kennedy saying, “It's real bad, Tish. It's real bad.”
Baldrige, who said meeting heads of state and American leaders had given her “the most fantastic catbird seat in history,” died a year ago at 86.
» The late Hugh Sidey, a former World-Herald reporter who for 30 years wrote a Time magazine column, “The Presidency,” recalled with glee the day JFK summoned him to the Oval Office.
“He just blew up, and he threw the magazine down on his desk,” Sidey told me with a chuckle in 1996. “He said, 'You guys are out to get me!'”
JFK shook his fist not because of criticism on policy but because Time's “people” section had made light of a suit the president had worn.
Sidey, who covered Omaha City Hall in the 1950s, said that after chewing him out, Kennedy gave him a scoop.
“Sidey, you SOB,” the president said, “stand here and see if you can get this right.”
JFK allowed him to listen as the president spoke by phone with astronaut John Glenn, just out of the ocean after becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
Sidey, whose father-in-law managed the Wilson & Co. packing plant in Omaha, said covering the Kennedy era was exciting.
“There definitely was a Camelot,” Hugh said. “Kennedy had that charisma. He was a reader — he got his ideas from reading — and he was a romantic. He saw this as drama.”
» The greatest drama of Kennedy's presidency was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a hero of that event was an Omaha native.
Navy pilot William B. Ecker flew a low-level reconnaissance flight at 350 to 400 feet, producing photos that proved the existence of ballistic missiles in Cuba.
U-2 flights at 75,000 feet under the direction of the Strategic Air Command a week earlier had spotted the site, which President Kennedy announced to a stunned world on Oct. 22, 1962. The next day, Ecker was sent in for a closer and more dangerous look, with flak barely missing his plane.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson used the photos to confront the Soviet Union on the floor of the United Nations. After the crisis, JFK pinned a Distinguished Flying Cross on Ecker, a 1942 graduate of the old Omaha Tech High School. He died in 2009.
His memoir with co-author Kenneth V. Jack, “Blue Moon Over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaisance During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” was published last year by Osprey Publishing.
» While visiting Boston and Cape Cod last month, I recalled my 14th birthday, the tensest day of the Cuban crisis, the closest we have come to nuclear war.
Now my oldest grandchild is 14, coming of age in an era with crises of its own.
In the lives of today's older generations, the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused the nation a traumatic jolt.
An Omaha friend told me of his Irish-born grandmother's high-pitched, mournful wailing that November afternoon a half-century ago, a reminder of the old practice of “keening.”
It's a cliche to say the Kennedy assassination marked the end of America's age of innocence. But things did seem to change.
On a recent sunny day, at age 65 and with a career mostly in the past, I visited Kennedy Country with my wife and admired the resplendence of fall.
We came of age in our spring and now our personal autumn beckons, life's third act. A good time for looking back at what shaped us, even at milestones that shocked us and caused pain.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|