Love and respect of country were always important virtues in the family in which I grew up. My father served as an American combat soldier during World War II; he and my mother were two of the most patriotic people I have ever known. Discussion of American history and current events were commonplace at the dinner table and in the living room of my boyhood home.
I’ve often thought that certain major historical events that serve to tether the people, especially the young people, who live through them to their respective countries. For example, my father was only eight years old when Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris. Lindbergh, who became world famous overnight, was one of my father’s heroes and I suspect that historic event served to connect my dad to his country. For my son, Michael, the event that stands out to him from his childhood is 9/11. On that terrible day in 2001, my young son embraced his American citizenship as he had never done before because his country was under attack.
For me, the defining historical event was the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—now 50 years ago. My parents were enthusiastic Kennedy Democrats and I’ll never forget the look of pain on their faces when we heard the news that he had been gunned down while riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas, Texas.
It amazes me that I can recall the event so well all these decades later. Though I was a very young boy at the time, I distinctly remember that all the television channels were devoted to news coverage of the assassination. I also have vivid memories of watching President Kennedy’s dramatic funeral on our black and white television. The flag-draped coffin resting on a caisson pulled by several white horses was a gripping sight. The solemn and repetitive beat of the drums as the procession passed through the streets of Washington, DC was also deeply memorable. And watching the president’s grieving widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, dressed in black and bravely walking behind her husband’s coffin, left a deep and abiding impression upon me.
Looking back 50 years later—remembering the shocking and sad events surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination—makes me realize that, in a sense, the day the president died was the very day that I became an American. I distinctly remember my father telling me that Kennedy was our president and that the man who shot him had also attacked America. Thus, the murder of President Kennedy was a great tragedy for all of us Americans no matter what age.
For an excellent historical recounting of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the dramatic days that followed, see William Manchester’s book The Death of a President (first published in 1967).