Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Riderless Horse: Reflecting on JFK … by gimleteye

I was nine years old and in the fourth grade when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.

Precisely, I was on the playground at Moses Brown School in Providence RI. More precisely, I was on the monkey bars at our all-boys school, light and with a strength to body ratio that, fifty years later, is pure memory.

We were called from recess, back into Mrs. Bachmann's classroom. She, stern historian of all things Providence and gatekeeper of our moral development, who was also relatedly tasked with protecting us against a nuclear bomb by having us crouch under our wooden desks during periodic drills.

With Mrs. Bachmann, we were judged for learning. At recess, our imaginations ruled. I flew on the monkey bars. So --  annoyed at a recess cut short -- side by side peers also annoyed for their own reasons I scarcely understood, Mrs. Bachmann told the fourth grade in an extra somber voice (she was alway somber unless enlivened by some piece of historical trivia) that our president was dead. Really?

In the days that followed my family watched the JFK funeral procession in the nation's capitol on black and white television. Here is what I remember. Not the funeral images or even re-runs of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder. It was the riderless horse in the funeral cortege.

I had never seen a riderless horse. Or heard of one. 

In those days TV serials were filled with horses. There were horses everywhere. Gunsmoke. Zorro. The Lone Ranger. Everyone had a horse. No one had a riderless horse. But there is was.

It wasn't until fifth grade we were taught, in Mrs. Hatch's English class (a big step up), about metaphor. But as a fourth grader watching that riderless horse, metaphor revealed. Our nation was without a leader the same way that horse was without its rider.

The other point about metaphor is that it propels forward thinking. It is not just the horse. It is what happens, afterwards. That went off like a tiny bomb.

I peer backwards with more history under my belt. For example, I moved with my family to Miami more than twenty years ago. 1963,  in comparison, was less than twenty years since the end of World War II. 

In 1961, as a seven year old, the Bay of Pigs crisis, the one that triggered nuclear bomb mitigation drills in school, skipped by me like a mote of dust. What I didn't miss -- and what really shaped my life -- was the Cold War that JFK and the nation inherited. Its losses and sorrows simmered at the surface of our family life.

Four years after JFK's death, I saw my first president in person. A nine year old boy doesn't know much. A thirteen year old knows everything

It was 1967, just outside the gates of that same school, not a hundred yards from those vanished monkey bars. On an early spring day, President Lyndon Johnson was planning a route on Lloyd Avenue. The school had lined up. We fidgeted for an hour, waiting. 

On the one hand, we were grateful for skipping our classes. I was hopeful for a glimpse of girls from Wheeler School. 

On that day there were no girls. It wasn't entirely a bust. The president was no friend of this thirteen year old. I knew all about the Vietnam War or thought so. The older brothers of fellow students had been drafted and were serving. One had died.

Nearly fifty years later, I still see exactly the weight in the heavy lines on Lyndon Johnson's face as his motorcade sped by.

I would soon have my first experience as a political activist. I volunteered to organize high schools students in Rhode Island for Eugene McCarthy (where I learned about carbon paper and mimeograph machines). A year later, in 1968, Johnson announced his decision to abandon his run for the White House. Richard Nixon won the election in a landslide. 

Seven years later as a college senior, I had my only chance to enter the United States government at a privileged level. I didn't know it was a job interview at the time. At Yale, my meeting with William Bundy, one of the nation's security advisors in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, did not go well. I triggered a very terse and very brief argument over the Vietnam War. Bundy and his brother, McGeorge played key roles escalating that war.

Since the 1960's, I have always -- well, more or less -- supported dark horse candidates for public office. Why? Among the reasons: that riderless horse.


Geniusofdespair said...

I was playing hooky with a few friends on that day.

Anonymous said...

I was on the playground of the Cisqua School in Mt. Kisco, New York.

Anonymous said...

I was standing in formation at Amarillo AFB awaiting the President's arrival. He was due to stop there on his way back to Washington. We waited, and waited, and waited. Then were dismissed. No one informed us why, we had to hear it on the radio. I was later assigned to Otis AFB and President' Kennedy's summer white house on Cape Cod, then taken over by the local commanding officer.

Anonymous said...

I was in the school yard of my elementary school. In those Leave It to Beaver years, I actually walked home for lunch and then walked back. Sounds kind of quaint today! I was also nine years old. I remember hearing vague comments about the President having been shot. When we were called back in to school, we could see the teachers talking in hushed tones. Then we were told the news and students were assembled in the gym. I felt especially close to the President and his family because I delivered the afternoon Chicago newspaper and read all the stories about him and his family. I was especially saddened when baby Patrick Bouvier died. Incidentally, the '68 election between Nixon and Humphrey was not a landslide Nixon victory. Far from it. Many believe if the race had continued a couple of more weeks, the Happy Warrior, who was saddled with his role as LBJ's veep (very tough duty), might have pulled out a victory. The '72 election with McGovern is no doubt the landslide you refer to.

Anonymous said...

That pic was taken on October 1, 2013 the day Obamacare rolled out. Speaking of riderless horses or maybe too many (riders) and not enough horses.

Anonymous said...

I was in elementary school and I remember crying as I walked home alone that day. It was like hope had died and the future was uncertain. I was glued to the TV, watched everything.

Looking back, given my life experiences, he was a major transitional figure for the country and the world, and he executed the pivot in just a very short time in office. I don't know if we will ever be able to fully embrace his impact on the country as a whole or how he influenced individuals. But he had a great influence on me and helped shape my world view. I too am one of those who stepped-up to ask, "What can I do for my country?"

Anonymous said...

His pictures evoke specific emotional feelings. He died young so he will always be the same to us. Others grew older, so we saw them go through life's transitions- young, middle age, senior citizen, then death. You are right about the pivot. He set us on a trajectory for greatness and called a new generation to service to the country and to each other. Maybe that was why he came. Then he was taken away.