Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Telling Caroline

Picture courtesy of the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, Boston

In honor of this week's 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy, here is my essay about the time I saw him in the flesh a mere four months before he died. The essay was published in American Heritage Magazine in July 2006 under the title "That Smile." 

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the Kennedys were a vivid presence in our household. My father had “Profiles of Courage” on the bookshelf by his special chair, and Jackie Kennedy’s outfits were featured in all my mother’s fashion magazines. Even I - a first-grader - had a Jackie and Caroline paper doll set that I played with all the time. I was fascinated by Caroline because we were almost exactly the same age - she was born a mere five days before me in late 1957.

In August 1963, my family went on vacation to Cape Cod. On the first Sunday of the vacation, my father took a detour from the route we usually took to the beach and pulled into a little parking lot just off a two-lane rural road. Another family was already parked there, and I couldn’t understand why. It seemed an unlikely place to stop. There was nothing to see but the hedge bordering the road, and nothing to hear but the faint sound of waves in the distance.

I was bored. I didn’t understand why we weren’t hightailing it straight to the beach on that fine summer morning instead of stewing in a hot car. Be patient, my father said, something exciting is going to happen, but that was hard to believe. My mother was sitting sideways in the passenger seat, using the flip-down visor mirror to put on her lipstick. My little brother dozed in his car seat. My dad was chatting with the father of the other family, leaning against the side of their car. I tried counting birds flying overhead but hardly any went by. I got out of the car and drifted around the make-shift parking lot, a mere patch of gravel carved out of a field. I began to run round the lot in ever-decreasing circles to see how dizzy I could make myself, round and round. Suddenly I realized I could hear the gathering growl of what sounded like motorbikes in the distance. Intrigued, I glanced up, still running, and caught the toe of my sneaker on something and pitched forward heavily onto the gravel. 

I can distinctly remember the sharp pain in my knees and my howl of shock and outrage. At that exact second, my father shouted, “He’s coming!” and my mother hooked me under the armpits and swung me like a sack to the verge of the road. Along the narrow country lane came two motorcycle outriders and then a long black limo and to my astonishment I saw at the limo's window the unmistakable face of the President of the United States.

When John F. Kennedy caught sight of me, a tearful five-year-old with bloody knees, he said something to his driver and the long, low car slowed to a crawl. The President turned back to the window and smiled and waved - at me. “Wave, wave,” my mother urged me, her own hands still trapped under my armpits, and I did, mesmerized by the President’s dazzling sympathetic smile. At the same time, I could feel trickles of blood oozing down my legs into the elastic of my knee-socks. As the car passed us, we all piled into the road, still waving. The President turned around to look out of the limo’s back window and kept right on waving and smiling and waving and smiling until a bend in the road took him out of our sight.

Forty years later I call still feel the shock of being caught in the spotlight of that famous gaze. For days afterwards, with crisscrossed Band-Aids like a badge of honor on each knee, I basked in the glory of that moment.

What I did not know till later was that the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick had died only two days earlier. Kennedy had been to Holy Mass alone that morning as Jackie was still in the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, recovering from her ordeal. Later that day, the President took Caroline to the hospital to visit her mother for the first time since the baby’s birth and death. In the press the next day, Caroline was pictured clutching a bunch of daisies and pressing her lips to the back of her daddy’s hand. 

Three months later, I came home from school one afternoon and found my father sitting in front of the television set in tears. I had seen his car in the garage and come running in, full of joy to have him home from work so early, but he had gotten up from his chair and gone into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He hadn’t even said hello. My mother hastened to reassure me that he wasn’t mad at me, he was just upset because something very bad had happened to President Kennedy. It took a few minutes before I fully understood that the President was dead, but when it did, my first terrible thought was that someone, somehow was going to have to break the news to Caroline.  


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