On May 29, 1917, John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. More than fifty years later –to the day – I was born on Cape Cod. Our shared birthdays led me to consume anything and everything Kennedy related as a child, and –like a child- I basked in the heroism and hagiography of his life story. With age and with study of history and politics came the realization that –as are we all- Jack Kennedy was a human being: not quite perfect, and not completely flawed.
The fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is being marked by remembrances from national leaders to journalists who covered the event to citizens who may have never met the thirty-fifth president….
….but still feel a connection to him.
The reasons his assassination resonates so fully with people vary and have been well documented. Primary among them is this: television brought this young, charismatic politician into the homes of Americans on a daily basis; his death seemed like the death of a family member.
A native Cape Codder born after his assassination, my connection to the Cape’s most well-known resident is obvious – we swam in the same waters, drove the same roads and walked the same greens and fairways at Hyannisport Golf Club. That connection, however, goes far beyond the fact that my siblings and I were raised just a few miles away from the Kennedy Compound. First, a note about the Cape: yes, it is an exclusive vacation spot for some – but not for all. Like most of my friends and neighbors, we were middle class. Dad was a teacher, Mom a secretary. We struggled with finances like other families, but the efforts of –and the part time jobs obtained by- my parents taught us the value of hard work and discipline. I may have walked the same fairways as JFK at the Hyannisport Club, but there was a great difference: he played, I caddied. Proximity to the Kennedy Compound didn’t mean we were in the same economic neighborhood. Far from it.
The first tee at Hyannisport, twenty years before I was doing double loops there.
That proximity did lead to other shared experiences. Mom and Dad were married -and I was baptized and had my first communion- at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis. It was also the same parish the Kennedys called home. I can still recall tourists turning and taking photos of Ted Kennedy as the Senator attended mass. There was pride in the fact that my parents prayed in the same pews as the nation’s first Catholic president, and that Jack’s –and later Bobby’s and Ted’s- efforts to improve the lot of the less fortunate among us came from our shared Catholic beliefs.
The church is located on South Street in Hyannis, directly in front of the old Barnstable High School and a half mile from where my mother grew up. Mom loves telling the story of election-day in 1960: Jack’s defeat of Nixon wasn’t confirmed until early the following day. A few hours later, the President-elect and his family drove down South Street to give his acceptance speech at the Hyannis Armory, a few blocks from the high school. Mom describes running from the school, falling and scraping her knee in an effort to watch the caravan of cars pass. She had seen him plenty of times before, but never as President-elect. The memory, she says, still resonates.
“They drove by,” she’s told us hundreds of times, “and as he passed he smiled and waved right at me.”
The President-elect at the Hyannis armory.
I grew up in the ‘80s, years after Kennedy was assassinated, and during the height of the Reagan revolution. Despite the country’s turn to the Right politically, there was still a great deal of interest in all things Kennedy. The summer months would see thousands of tourists descend upon Hyannis for a drive by the Compound. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’d be biking through Hyannis and then be stopped by tourists asking for directions.
Inevitably, after giving directions, I’d hear the same question: “Are you a Kennedy?”
I always thought the question came as a result of my obvious good-looks, charisma and intelligence.*
Not so much.
A high school friend of mine is in Hollywood shopping a script he’s written about similar experiences he went through growing up. Thanks, Ted Collins for destroying the belief that I was something special. Apparently ALL of my friends were asked the same question.
Fifty years after his assassination Kennedy’s legacy lives on: you can read today of the elected officials who were inspired by him to pursue politics, or join the military….or the Peace Corps…or the fight for civil rights.
A legacy of service?
For this journalist who shared a birthday, a church and the same hometown as the martyred president, I can think of nothing more impressive.
*Kidding. Swear to god.