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Saturday Diary: My Kennedy memories: relief, grief and disbelief

Saturday, July 31, 1999

By Michael McGough

Several weeks ago I received a letter from the Rev. Graham R. Hodges, a Congregationalist pastor in upstate New York. "Dear Mr. McGough," he wrote. "Your help on this would be greatly appreciated and important. We are asking only 40 editors in the U.S.A. to take part."

 
  Michael McGough is editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette. His e-mail address is mmcgough@post-gazette.com. 
 

Take part in what? A trip down a dark stretch of memory lane, it turns out. Mr. Hodges is soliciting Americans' recollections of what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

The responses will appear in a book to be edited by Mr. Hodges, whose letter contained an uncomfortable intimation of the recipients' mortality. "As vivid as those memories are for us now," he said, "they will die when we do, unless written down."

I plan to respond at length, because, if I do say so myself, I had an unusual reaction to the news from Dallas.

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a seventh-grader in Sacred Heart Elementary in Shadyside, participating in a classroom debate: "Automation: Marvel or Monster?" The debate was aborted when our principal's voice came over the PA system. "The television news is reporting that President Kennedy . . ." - I tensed - "has been shot."

I sighed in relief.



Whether or not it's fit to print in Mr. Hodges' book, that's the truth. In one of those weird suspensions of time usually associated with impending auto collisions, my mind hit the pause button after the first half of the principal's bulletin and supplied its own dire completion to the sentence: "... has declared war on the Soviet Union."

This was the fall of 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis moved Sacred Heart to send home with its students a form asking parents what should be done with their children if the Conelrad emergency signal cut in on Rege Cordic on KDKA radio.

So it was a relief for this nuclear-neurotic baby boom brat that the bad news was "only" that the president had been shot, not that he had shot an ICBM into the air heading for Moscow. Of course, in a few minutes my shameful sense of relief had given way to shock and fascination and the hope that The Pittsburgh Press would be printing an Extra edition that afternoon with all the details.

When it was clear that America's first Catholic president was dead, we were whisked by the Sisters of Charity over to Sacred Heart Church for a marathon recitation of the Rosary for the repose of JFK's soul. I suppressed the thought that this was preferable to praying for a miraculous interception of incoming Soviet missiles.

Later, at home, I read about the assassination and parked myself in front of the black-and-white TV. In the days that followed, I comforted my Grandmother Murray, a JFK votary who had an apartment in our house, and felt her pain when my father, a Republican and a wiseacre, mocked the mawkishness of many of the tributes to the president. Dad was especially scathing about the eulogy delivered at a Capitol Hill service by Sen. Mike Mansfield.

Mansfield, a usually plainspeaking Montanan, had decided to wax poetic in his remarks, taking as his motif the fact that at Parkland Hospital Jacqueline Kennedy had taken a ring from her finger and placed it in her fallen husband's hand.

Thus was born the Ring Refrain. "And so she took the ring from her finger," Mansfield said again and again, "and placed it in his hand."

And my father said: "I'd like to take my fist and place it in his mouth."



A year and a half later, my father was dead of cancer at the age of 38, eight years younger than JFK when he was murdered but the same age John F. Kennedy Jr. would be when his plane would crash more than three decades later. Even if Dad had had his own intimation of mortality as we watched the assassination coverage in 1963, I don't think he would have reined in his mordant wit. I certainly hope he wouldn't have.

I don't have a specific recollection of my father commenting on John-John's funeral salute, which has been recycled obscenely in the past two weeks, but I do remember Dad bringing home from work a photostatic copy of "Special Delivery From Heaven." This was a poem supposedly addressed to John-John from his father "up there." Sorry, Reverend Hodges, I can't remember how it went; I do remember that it was so bad that it should have been marked "Return to Sender."

I was reminded of that composition this week when several Post-Gazette readers sent us poems in honor of the "prince of Camelot" that were, well, in the tradition of "Special Delivery From Heaven." Here's an idea for a book: Why Do Good People Write Bad Poems About Dead People? Slain presidents and their sons aren't the only beneficiaries of this perplexing phenomenon. You also see it in the heartfelt doggerel of some paid obituaries for ordinary people.



Don't think I'm hard-hearted. I consider JFK Jr.'s death a tragedy, and have no cause to challenge the conventional wisdom that he was bright, affable and a celebrity survivor.

But I was stunned by the saturation coverage of his death, and nonplused that a slew of magazines - not just Time and Newsweek but TV Guide - featured JFK Jr. covers. What's next? Field & Stream? Popular Mechanics? It's all too much.



A couple of months after my father died, I enrolled in Central Catholic High School, where Brother Denis Benedict, our freshman English teacher, occasionally lectured on etiquette - everything from which fork to use first at a dinner party to proper deportment at a funeral home.

His counsel in the latter situation was: Less is more. Just tell the grieving relatives: "I'm sorry." Don't go on about how natural the corpse looks or how you're sure the faithful departed is in heaven.

I pricked up my ears during this lecture. At my father's wake a few months earlier, more than one well-intentioned mourner had told me: "You're the man of the house now."

My mother was appalled - as appalled, I suspect, as Jackie Kennedy was when she read "Special Delivery From Heaven." Luckily, Jackie isn't around to catch the media circus over her son's death - or to read the inevitable collation of memories about where people were when they heard that the Piper Saratoga was missing.

Adulation: marvel or monster?



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