It can’t have been 50 years ago to the day this Friday that John F. Kennedy Jr. was shot.
I’m sure I’m not that old.
But I was a 17-year-old college freshman coming out of Spanish class at Howard College – now Samford University – in Birmingham, Ala., when someone told us, “President Kennedy has been shot.”
“That couldn’t happen here,” we told each other. We held onto the hope that he hadn’t been seriously wounded, not knowing that the president had apparently been killed instantly, despite what the public was being told at first.
We didn’t know what to do, what to think, how to react.
Classes were cancelled for his funeral, I remember. Boys and girls together, we huddled around the black-and-white television in the lounge of our all-girls dorm, still in shock, watching the caisson, the riderless black horse with boots turned backwards, Jacqueline Kennedy and her children solemnly walking in the procession.
I don’t remember much about views of Arlington National Cemetery then. Those permanently etched pictures came later for me. After Salem’s own four-star Gen. William Rosson died at age 86 in December 2004, his widow, Bertha, arranged for a bus-load of friends and relatives to travel to Arlington for his burial with full honors a few weeks later, in January. I was honored to be invited.
It was a chilly, misty day for the escort of good-looking young Army men and women among the rows of white tombstones; there was a different Blackjack horse with backward-turned boots, the flag-draped coffin on a caisson pulled by six white horses, a 45-piece military band, a 17-gun salute, and “Taps.” The Rev. Timothy Vance, then-rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem which was the general’s parish, walked behind the casket, his long, black wool cape flaring in the breeze.
The general was interred on a slight hillside, under graceful trees. His widow sobbed quietly as she clasped the triangle-folded American flag a soldier presented to her.
Gen. Rosson was a gentleman, through and through.
These days, we know John F. Kennedy was not. At the time he died, though, he was thought of as the epitome of what was possible: a good-looking, rich young man with a beautiful family and all the world and its possibilities ahead of him. It was the time of Camelot.
So many changes since then: Cell phones, instant communication, email, photographs that don’t require darkroom developing, microwave ovens, gas that costs more than $3 a gallon, latchkey children, drugs no one ever dreamed of, easy access to assault rifles.
We know now that Presidents have clay feet. Other countries don’t always admire the United States, especially after the debacle of our Congress not being able to come to agreement, and shutting down the government for all the world to see. Our nation has lost a large part of its dreams.
But before Nov. 22, 1963, the possibilities were golden. I pray that we will regain some of that idealism again, and soon. Bring on Camelot once again.