Jourgensen: Johnny, we think we knew ye

Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? You have to be 60 or older (like me) to even dimly remember Nov. 22, 1963, meaning most Americans have only heard or read about that day in Dallas and the days that followed it. 

I remember I was downstairs in our my family’s home in Casper, Wyoming when my mother answered the phone in my dad’s study and, for the first time I could remember, began to cry. My father heard the news on the radio or from someone rushing into his store and called her. 

My first inkling that something big had happened was when I saw our small black-and-white TV parked in the kitchen and turned on from morning to evening showing coverage of Kennedy’s funeral.

My first real interest in JFK came when I was in grade school and started reading a series of kids’ books titled, “You Were There…” The biographies took young readers back to historic events and put you right beside the main character in historic episodes, including Kennedy as a youthful skipper commanding PT 109 in World War II.

I remember staring at a picture of the scrawny future president in his tropical-weight uniform and sunglasses. I had never met anyone really wealthy but I remember reading how Kennedy came from a rich and powerful family and it made me wonder how someone with that clout in capitalist America ended up commanding a small crew aboard a plywood boat in the Pacific. 

Split in half at night by a Japanese destroyer, PT 109 sank and Kennedy, according to my boyhood book, managed to help his crew get to safety and then swam off to look for help. 

“Would l do that?” I asked myself. How many strokes through dark, shark-infested waters would I need to swim before I gave up? What would I say to the people I was responsible to command and protect to keep their spirits up and keep them alive? 

I remember Robert F. Kennedy dying, like his brother, at the hand of an assassin on the day my sister turned 3. It was a sunny, late spring day and the kids in the school yard said their parents thought one of RFK’s political rivals had him killed. 

To my adolescent eyes, Robert Kennedy seemed very different from his brother. He was a rangy, even scrappy guy, who liked to campaign in shortsleeves and who I could identify a little with because he liked backpacking and climbing. I remember watching him on television walking through American city streets I had never seen in places where I heard riots had broken out and American soldiers were stationed, wearing gas masks with rifles at the ready.

When I got to high school and my reading interests included getting my hands on any and all newspapers from near and far-flung places, I remember reading about how Kennedy wrote “Profiles In Courage” even though he was a young man and apparently convalescing from health problems that would plague him his entire short life. 

He won the Pulitzer Prize for the collection of short biographies and I remember thinking as a budding journalist that here’s this guy who was president and a Navy hero who was also a gifted writer in the eyes of people standing on top of the Mount Everest of writing. 

I remember the first time I walked through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Columbia Point sticking out into Boston Harbor. I rounded a dimly-lit corner in one of the museum’s exhibits and walked into a cavernous, sun-filled room with a panoramic water view and a gigantic American flag suspended from the rafters.

Architect I.M. Pei’s brilliant design worked its magic on me and I stood transfixed, contemplating how Kennedy, whether he wanted it or not, carried a mantle of responsibility that forced him to look at America from lofty heights. 

He was that rare breed of American picked by fate and history to view our country from a lonely place only few others ever occupy. His eloquence reflects his ability to contemplate that which is glorious about America. But the panoramic view also exposed our nation’s ugly truths. 

I met Thomas P. Costin Jr. not too long after I was hired to report for the Item. I had never met someone who knew John Kennedy and Costin, with his gift of storytelling, transported me back to Boston in the 1950s when Costin and Kennedy were ambitious young men daring to take risks and ” … do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …”

I was barely a boy when I heard John F. Kennedy’s name and now I am a man who has outlived him by decades. I wonder what his life would have been like if he lived, and what he would think about America today and its ability or failure to climb to the high places he summited. 


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