Where We Were, When: One Boomer’s Apology for Carrying the Kennedy Torch

Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look’d one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.
—Alfred Tennyson, “The Passing of Arthur,” from Idylls of the King

What changed that day was everything.

Yes, with apologies to post-Boomers, this anniversary—like the past 50 years—is all about us. Of course we remember Where We Were, and not just because that was the day nonstop media coverage sprang to life to remind us. I think we remember where we were because it was the last time we were We, the first moment we become the Me Generation. It was the last time we knew Where we were, and trusted the ground underneath us, the last time (for many of us) there was a There there.

I woke up, 13 years old, on November 22, 1963, knowing who I was: KennedyBostonIrishCatholic and damn proud of it. Midmorning L.A. time, as we 8th graders of Immaculate Heart of Mary Grammar School in Hollywood yawned our way through history, the phone in the classroom rang. Our classroom had a phone because, as 8th graders, we were normally taught by the school principal, Sr Mary Philomena, IHM, known to us for her stern countenance as Lemon Lips. That semester, however, Sr Philomena was on a leave of absence due to back surgery (some of us swore it was really shame at having had her namesake saint removed from the universal calendar in 1961, thus predating the unsainting of others like Christopher), so we had a lay teacher sub, Mrs. Gorman. Mrs. Gorman picked up the phone, assuming it was some administrative matter passed along by the school secretary (my mother’s best friend and my Confirmation sponsor, Mrs Luecke).  We stopped buzzing amongst ourselves when Mrs. Gorman, phone still to her ear, cried out and burst into tears.

“The President has been shot in Dallas, and gravely wounded,” she announced. “Let’s pray.” We got out our rosaries and got to it.

So like a shatter’d column lay the King;
Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,
From spur to plume a star of tournament,
Shot thro’ the lists at Camelot, and charged
Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

This wasn’t just America’s president, or the Church’s, or my Boston Irish family’s. This was my president. This was the guy my best friend and I had written a letter to, in my best Palmer penmanship on lined notebook paper topped with J.M.J., in 1960, inviting the then-Senator to speak at The BrenMc Club when he was in Los Angeles campaigning. The BrenMc Club, we believed he would have no way of guessing from our fabulously polished request, was our own invention, its title a portmanteau of our last names. After the letter was posted, we solemnly informed the neighborhood that Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy would be arriving any day to address the crowds gathered in our clubhouse. The clubhouse was my parents’ garage, which we had lovingly outfitted with a podium (made from a cut down refrigerator box draped with my mother’s best ruffled black taffeta cocktail skirt to help disguise the trash cans and tool boxes behind it) and supplied with a battered aluminum water pitcher and a couple of those iridescent aluminum glasses out of which we drank our after-school root beer Fizzies. We set my little sister as sentry to watch for the motorcade coming down Edgemont Street. For days.

Here’s the best part: we got an answer to the letter. On Kennedy for President letteerhead, from campaign director Kenny O’Donnell himself, expressing in the most formal manner the Senator’s deep regret that his schedule while in Los Angeles was too full to allow him to take up our gracious invitation, though he hoped to visit sometime soon. Irish Mafia? You bet. But even if JFK himself never saw the letter, you had to love a guy who gathered around him staffers with that much respect for two little girls’ dreams. When my father drove us downtown to stand on the fringes of a nighttime rally, to get close to this “star of the tournament,” yes, we looked up at him, haloed in the streetlights, with hero worship. And we were sure he looked right back.

If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of.

This anniversary is shot through with a kind of Catholicism that existed then and hasn’t since, for so many. That instantaneous reaction to bad news, the going for the rosary. The announcement over the intercom of the President’s passing, after which we were marched in bewildered ranks, beanies or Kleenexes popped into hasty place on the girls’ heads, to mourn before the Blessed Sacrament and then released to go home early. The sight of my father in rare tears, clutching the battered pocket prayerbook my mother had given him for Christmas the first year of their marriage. Our Texas Baptist neighbors embracing my mother, condoling her Catholic loss, apologizing that it was Dallas. Watching Walter Cronkite, that secular priest, and talking about where we had been when we heard. My father saying he had been in the barber shop, which meant in the bar with his bookie—that was Catholic, too.

And then a blur until Sunday morning, all of us 8th graders back in the classroom with our parents for Open House. I had been looking forward to this occasion for breathless weeks, because it would be the unveiling of the Twelve Apostles butcher-paper mural for which Douglas DeAragon and I had headed up the project team. Douglas-smart-sarcastic-blond-blue-eyed-James-Dean-lookalike-captain-of-the-basketball-team-boy-of-my-hopeless-nerd-dreams-DeAragon. I got to stand next to him (sweet!) while the parents admired our handiwork—well, Frankie Morris’s handiwork, artistically, but our research. Portraits of each apostle, along with feast days and various methods of martyrdom. There was a television set up in the classroom (something that hadn’t happened since the Dodgers played the White Sox in the 1959 World Series), and so we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald live, right there in front of us, in the room where we had stopped studying history and been plunked smack down in the middle of it. To this day I see that iconic news footage superimposed on the faces of the Twelve Apostles . . . and Doug DeAragon.

But she, that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
And loos’d the shatter’d casque, and chaf’d his hands,
And call’d him by his name, complaining loud,
And dropping bitter tears against a brow
Strip’d with dark blood: for all his face was white
And colorless, and like the wither’d moon
Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
And all his greaves and cuisses dash’d with drops
Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls—
That made his forehead like a rising sun
High from the dais-throne—were parch’d with dust;
Or, clotted into points and hanging loose . . .

Jackie in the pink Chanel suit. It’s such a cliche now, the designer widow, the American Pietà. But being who we were—Catholics of that weird liminal time not quite yet post-Vatican II—how could we not engage in hagiography, the most useful of Catholic coping skills? Her clothing, stained with the blood of the slain young king—could we have seen it as anything other than Veronica’s veil? Steeped in tales of Christians v. lions and virgin martyrs (November 22 is the memorial of St Cecilia, struck 3 times in the neck with a sword, died singing) and the persecution of the brave Irish Catholics by the bastard Protty Orangemen, is there any way on earth we could have avoided making a holy card of the assassination, complete with third-class relic of a blackened rose petal from Jackie’s bouquet? St Peter, crucified upside down. St Bartholomew, flayed with a whip. St James the Lesser, beaten to death with a fuller’s club. Blessed Irish Johnny, shot in the head with an atheist Commie bullet in the country of the Protestants.

Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
Black-stol’d, black-hooded, like a dream—by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shiver’d to the tingling stars,
And, as it were one voice, an agony
Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.

That funeral. The whole of it, even the parts outside the Mass, was Catholic through and through, the nation and the world drawn into a requiem liturgy. With the possible exception of some of Pope Francis’s widely televised recent celebrations, no Catholic liturgical moment before or since has ever been so uncompromising in its faithfulness to tradition and solemnity yet so globally inclusive and participatory, so “Gather Us In” in the very best sense of the impulse.

Corita Kent, IHM, wrote later about the art and spirituality of that funeral, and how Mrs Kennedy had chosen every detail, from Lincoln’s riderless horse to John-John’s salute, to do what Catholic liturgy does best: to situate us in history while acknowledging that we are dust before the Eternal, to declare that we are a communion of saints. In other words, to remind us Where We Were, When. I wish I could find that piece again, but if you were there, you know. If you weren’t, like Max Lindenman, you may get it anyway.

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
“Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolv’d
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”

It’s unforgivable, we know—this narcissistic reopening of unreal wounds, this pining for the fleshpots of Camelot. We were wrong. It wasn’t Arthurian legend. Eden was riddled with the same weary old sins of corruption and adultery and pride pride pride. He wasn’t a saint or a martyr. There were no heroes, in government or anywhere else. We took the torch passed to us and fiddled while we burned.

That morning, right after Mrs. Gorman made her announcement about the President’s death, two kids in my class applauded. Huh, what? Their parents, staunch Catholics and leaders of the local John Birch Society chapter, had taught them that Kennedy was a Communist traitor for not supporting the Vietnamese regime of Diệm and his sister-in-law, the “Dragon Lady” Madame Nhu. It was my first exposure to the polarization of Catholics by politics.

Two years later, my pious Boston Irish godmother, a brilliant writer and for many years secretary to the Cardinal Archbishop, would become so outraged by the forced integration of the Boston school system that she eventually ended up in the streets throwing rocks at the windows of buses bringing black students to Hyde Park High. Huh, what?

And the bright promise of the Second Vatican Council, that made us all fall in love with the Church we’d been baptized into before our mothers were “churched”—that time “when every morning brought a noble chance”? Well, kumbaya-bye-bye, baby. The good, and there was lots of it, that came from the Council has mostly been lost or tarnished by the divisions that have been widening ever since.

The Democrats slid away from being the party of the Catholic working class and became, alas, the party of abortion above all. I’m still a Kennedy Democrat, so I’ll be damned if I ever vote Republican, but I won’t be a Pelosi Democrat so my DNA has disenfranchised me. Huh, WTF?

No, it wasn’t the first time in the history of the world that the gestalt did a stutter-step, and it surely won’t be the last. Nobody’s innocence was lost 50 years ago today, no Golden Age dissolved. And it is just the most cynical of ironies that once a year, on this day, the whole hippie libby lump of us suddenly become the most public and unrepentant of reactionaries.

But I miss that morning, when we were a we, before we started believing, like Bedivere, that it was our lot  to go forth companionless, with the days darkening round us, and the years. Much of my own reversion to Catholicism (which looks a lot to some like a regression) is driven by this longing, to be back in that place when to be Boston Irish Catholic was a happy thing, and proud, and going for my rosary and taking my troubles to the tabernacle was as natural as breathing.

Me, me, me. The eternal whine. At the eternal flame, do what Arthur told Bedivere, please. Pray for the repose of the dead and forgiveness for the living, for the knowledge that Where We Were Then is where we are now and always will be, bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have liv’d my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure!
. . . let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell . . .”


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