xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Memories of JFK fifty years on.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Memories of JFK fifty years on.

Like a lot of Australians I followed with interest the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign of 1960. However, I became really interested in John Fitzgerald Kennedy on January 21, 1961. On that sunny afternoon I was driving to the summit of Mount Kosciusko when the ABC broadcast his inaugural address. It was a stirring speech. A clarion call to freedom that spoke of hope and promise for the future in a world held in the fearful clutch of the Cold War. One phrase in particular caught my attention.

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?"

It was a great quote, but I found out some years later that it was not entirely original. In 1959 the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr R.A.B. Butler, presented the budget on behalf of the government of Prime Minister Harold McMillan.

Even though McMillan was going around telling the Brits that, "You have never had it so good," it was a rather tough budget and "Rab" Butler was letting everyone know that the hard times needed people to make sacrifices. He asked the British people to be understanding and  said, "Don't ask what the government is doing for you. What are you going to do for the government?"

Of course two years later, JFK spoke those sentiments much more dramatically in language fashioned to stir the hearts of men and women everywhere. That was Kennedy's great effect on people. He made them feel important and he filled their hearts with hope. And he challenged them to be better than they were.

I was stirred again in May, 1961, when the young president was shown on the TV news pledging that America would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He told his fellow Americans that they would confidently take up this challenge, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And because it was hard it would make them better people. Not many politicians these days ask us to do hard things because it will be good for us.

Perhaps Winston Churchill gave the very best example of this when he said, "I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweat," when asking the British people to defend their island against Adolf Hitler.

In that May, 1961 speech, Kennedy said, "I believe that this nation should commit itself before this decade is out to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.
Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our abilities and skills.
Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one which we intend to win."

Oh, yes, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had the words and the charisma to lift us up, to willingly accept difficult challenges for the good of all.Young people flocked to the Peace Corps to work overseas doing voluntary work to help the poor and disadvantaged.

In August 1962 I arrived in Toronto and quickly fell under John Kennedy's spell. He gave almost weekly press conferences where he answered even the trickiest questions with clarity and confidence. But more than that, he was charming and witty and his press conferences were as entertaining as any show on television.

And then it was all over. Taken away in a few brief seconds of murderous madness in the Dealy Plaza in Dallas. For me, and for many, the loss was palpable. It weighed us down with grief and rage because that bright light of promise had been so quickly extinguished by an assassin.

In August 1963 I was holidaying at a beach side motel in Miami. Martin Luther King had just about to hold his momentous march on Washington and I was sitting near a poolside bar discussing this historic event with some friends and some other people we had met at the motel.

There were to young lawyers there, from Philadelphia as it turned out. I was absolutely dumbfounded when one of these young men asserted that Kennedy would be shot. He referred to the freedom riders travelling through the south asserting their rights to be served in bars and restaurants, he spoke of the attempts  by negroes to enrol in whites only university. He spoke of negroes who were being arrested as they tried to register to have their names placed on the electoral rolls.

When I said that nobody would shoot the President he said, "Kennedy has gone on National TV and supported the rights of negroes to be served in racially restricted restaurants, to enrol in universities and to vote. He has upset a lot of people. Some day somebody will shoot him."

Three months later that Philadelphia lawyer was proved 100% correct. Since that time many conspiracy theories have been promoted as to how and why John Fitzgerald Kennedy was slain. It is often tempting to believe it was the mafia, the CIA, the FBI, redneck racists in the Ku Klux Klan, the communists or some other group angry at Kennedy's legislative package to reform race relations, the unions and big business.

Personally I think JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Why? Well for several years after JFK was murdered his brother Robert Kennedy remained as the US Attorney General, the chief law officer in the land. Considering Bobby Kennedy's relentless pursuit of the mafia and union strong arm men like James Hoffa, it is inconceivable that he would have allowed his brother's killers to go unpunished. He would have tracked them down and brought them to justice. He didn't do that because Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby three days after JFK.

In 2005 I released a book titled LEON. It was a reflection on the early years of my life. I referred to myself as LEON because I was writing in the third person and felt uncomfortable writing "Noel did this and Noel did that." It seemed somehow right to adopt LEON as the name of somebody named Noel who was looking backwards at his life.

They say everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the death of John Kennedy. Well all those people would  now be sixty years or older. Below is an excerpt from my book relating to when I was teaching in Toronto on that fateful November day when our    dreams were so cruelly ended.

 One Friday afternoon Leon was happily teaching away in his Year Seven classroom when the school’s intercom crackled into life.
“Teachers, boys and girls, I’m very sorry to have to tell you that a radio bulletin has just announced that President Kennedy has been shot in a motorcade in Dallas. He has been rushed to hospital. I’ll try to keep you informed. I’m very sorry.”

It felt like a punch in the stomach. Every child was in pain. Girls cried and hugged each other. The boys beat their hands into their desks in frustration. Leon was stunned. JFK was one of his idols. Since arriving in Toronto, Leon had followed the President’s career with great interest. Kennedy’s televised press conferences, held almost weekly, were compulsory viewing for Leon. To these young Canadian students, Kennedy was as popular as The Beatles. The students were inconsolable.

Leon remembered October in the previous year when the Cuban Missile Crisis had gripped the nation. He had arrived home from work at about 4.30pm to be told by one of his housemates that the radio and TV stations had been saying all day that President Kennedy had put the military on full alert because of a build up of Russian missiles in Cuba. He was addressing the nation on a national telecast at 8.00pm.

At 8.00pm Leon watched the grim and resolute President state the situation as he saw it and what action he was going to take. He wanted Russian boats bringing missiles to Cuba to turn back and had set up a U.S. naval blockade for this purpose. He also said, in a broadening of the Monroe Doctrine, that any attack from Cuban missiles on to any part of the Americas would be deemed to be a direct attack on the United States by Russia and would be met with “full retaliatory force”.

Leon went to bed that night but he didn’t sleep. Like almost everyone else in North America he was waiting for World War Three to start. He also remembered the efforts of John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general, in desegregating the South. He remembered when they called in the National Guard to thwart Governor Wallace and Police Chief "Bull" Connors in Selma,  Alabama, and to stop white supremacists from preventing James Meredith from becoming the first enrolled negro at Mississippi University.

Above all he remembered the spirit of optimism and hope that the President had created in people – especially young people – around the world. It was in this hopeful and optimistic frame of mind that Leon started to tell the class that being shot did not mean the President was dead. He told them of South Africa’s Prime Minister, Hendrick Vervoerd, who had received two pistol bullets in the face, yet survived and continued his political career. Some of the children were calmed by this news. Just then the Principal’s voice crackled out once more with the tragic news that ended the dream for everyone.

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