Tuesday, 25 August 2009
A Fleeting Encounter with History
By Dell Pendergrast
On an unusually warm late October evening in 1963, my wife Tula and I fled our small, sweltering graduate student apartment in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood to seek relief on the banks of the nearby Charles River. We walked along a side street toward Commonwealth Avenue, a main avenue running parallel to the river.
As we arrived at the corner, two police cars approached on Commonwealth with flashing red lights and escorting two other vehicles. As the motorcade slowed to turn at the intersection illuminated by the faint glow of overhead streetlights, we saw a bulky, open convertible - probably a Cadillac or a Lincoln - following behind the two police cars.
Standing by ourselves on that corner, we gaped in amazement at the solitary occupant of the convertible’s backseat: the unmistakable face and distinctive haircut of America’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy.
While the lumbering limousine exited Commonwealth and moved up the side street, the president turned our way, smiled and gave a slight wave of the hand draped over the side of the vehicle.
The president’s modest motorcade disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. This was in the days before the sprawling presidential bubble covered by a thick blanket of Secret Service protection. My wife and I stood frozen on that street corner trying to digest what would be our only encounter with Boston’s favorite son. An assassin took his life in Dallas three weeks later.
We shared the convulsive local nightmare over the loss of a charismatic figure who captured the passion and pride of Bostonians, particularly the large, Irish-American community. In the suburban middle school where my wife taught, the shock and tears of the students (mostly of Irish and Italian ancestry) were endemic that November afternoon. My response was delayed by my nocturnal work routine at the Boston University radio station.
Scheduled for duty from 3PM to midnight, I enjoyed an early afternoon nap in our apartment oblivious to the dramatic events unfolding in Dallas. Arriving at the radio station around 2:30PM, I detected an extraordinary hush among the large number of station staff and students huddled around a television. Edging closer I heard Walter Cronkite’s sonorous voice and learned that John F. Kennedy was dead.
I had little time to contemplate the most devastating public event I’d ever experienced. The station director assigned me and a small team to travel immediately to Hyannisport on Cape Cod – about two or three hours away – to report any news from the Kennedy family compound. In the end, all we observed were unidentified cars occasionally arriving or departing.
The martyred president’s mother and father shouldered their grief in privacy behind closed doors. I spent the entire night in a car looking at the sprawling, white clapboard Kennedy home engulfed by bright security lights and the curious eyes of the media and onlookers outside the fenced perimeter. At dawn we returned to Boston without reporting anything except there was nothing to report.
Those old enough today will always remember November 22, 1963, and how it staggered the nation. The murder of the young, glamorous president ended an era of innocence, confidence and optimism which emerged during the years after World War II.
A national mood of confidence, pride and rectitude stumbled and then collapsed in the wake of Vietnam, urban riots, more political assassinations and Watergate. After those few horrific moments in Dallas, America would never be the same again.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]