Experiencing history with JFK

It was D-Day, June 6, 1944, more than five years before I was born. The allied invasion to liberate Europe from the Nazis had begun. My mother was a new mother at the time; my father was working a job during the day and patrolling the streets in the battle of the home front at night.

Three decades later, I asked her what D-Day was like. I expected flag-waving patriotism and stories of crowds in the street cheering the boys hitting the beaches at Normandy. I got tears instead.

“It was the most frightening day of the war,” she whispered. “We knew that there would be deaths. We went to church and held on to each other tight.”

It wasn’t long until the newspaper began to list the sum of all fears. You looked for names you knew, she said, with a rosary in your hand.

Reading history and experiencing history are two very different things. I’m reminded of that as we recognize the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

Time has told us the stories of Kennedy, a lot of stories that I would rather not hear. So be it.

But it makes it difficult explaining to a younger generation of Catholics what it meant when Kennedy was elected president, the first — and so far only — Catholic president. It had nothing really to do with politics, though the Old Man — a rock-ribbed Republican — was not going to vote for any Democrat.

That made him only one in about four Catholics, if that many, who voted against JFK. I was too embarrassed to admit that to my grammar school friends. I might as well have told them the Old Man had become a Methodist.

Kennedy’s election — combined with the papacy of Pope John XXIII — made Catholics feel for a short time that we were not only the past and future, but the present. I can so clearly remember two nuns at Christ the King School leading their respective students to class a day after the election — once those elusive Chicago ballots were found by Mayor Richard J. Daley — nodding to each other and one saying, “Looks like we won.”

The day of his inauguration a massive snowstorm crippled the East Coast and our grammar school was closed. My mother believed it was God’s doing, so all the Catholic kids could stay home and watch the inauguration on television.

It was all JFK and first lady Jackie for a few years. I know now that the usual political tussles were going on. But I was just a kid and all that mattered to me was that there was a Catholic in the White House.

Our Catholic identity meant everything to us. And JFK meant no more second-class status. That’s why in every Catholic business, from the bar, to the butcher’s shop, to the bowling alley, there were framed portraits of the pope and the president.

In August 1963, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, their newborn son, died. We mourned as if we had lost a family member.

A few months later, on the afternoon of Nov. 22, I was in freshmen social studies class at Manhattan Prep in the Bronx. Brother Patrick came in, white as a ghost, and whispered something to the teacher, Brother Joseph. He told us to close our books and kneel. He then told us to pray for the president, who had been shot.

Nothing ever seemed the same again.

It’s still hard to describe what it meant for Catholics when it ended so tragically. Despite all the stories, despite all the revelations and scandal-mongering, Kennedy was our president. He was our youth. Most of all, he was our Catholic.

That makes no sense, I suppose, to those who have only read the history. And didn’t experience it. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.