Reflections on a Fallen Hero

Teddy K. Makarow

© Copyright 2020 by Teddy K. Makarow

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash
            Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

The first time I became aware of the young Junior Senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I was in a high school history class in a group discussing current events. One student in our group presented his commentary on Senator Kennedy, after which he passed around the target article, including the Senator’s picture. Immediately I was hooked on what in my imagination was the classic American ideal of a leader that I had formed in elementary school while reading the red cloth covered books: a childhood series of biographies of famous Americans-- Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin.

Sporadically I began to follow news of him. This handsome, energetic, well spoken, funny and intelligent senator from Massachusetts incited my imagination to expand to new definitions of what Americans had been—what we were—what we could be. Our best youthful spirit expressed in my image of Jack. And as I followed him from the Senate to his announcement to run for President, I became committed to the movement to elect him.

July 1960: Home from college for the summer, tensely stationed in front of the TV screen, I watched the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. It was a dazzling political pendulum. Back and forth rang the names of possible presidential candidates from state to state.

Dauntless, I stuck it out through the wee hours until the last delegate cast his vote; my candidate was nominated on the first ballot! Exhausted but inspired, I posted a pathway of signs over the house for my family, who feeling pretty sure of JFK’s victory, had deserted me for bed.

Then still not satisfied with my incorrigible energy which demanded special action, I sent a telegram to the Senator at National Democratic Headquarters in Washington offering my help in the coming campaign.

Shortly thereafter, I received a letter typewritten by a secretary, but signed in ink by, I believed, John F. Kennedy himself. Then, back at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (known then as WC or Women’s College of the University of North Carolina), I dutifully followed Senator Kennedy’s advice to participate in the Presidential Campaign on campus through the Young Democrats’ Club.

In September of 1960, an exciting opportunity to serve came for me. That afternoon my roommate rushed into our dorm room out of breath. “He’s coming here,” she exclaimed. “And we’re going to be Kennedy Girls; we’ve got to find red, white, and blue outfits now!”

So a few days later, adorned in our quickly borrowed red, white and blue skirts and blouses, we set out for the Greensboro Airport, where we were given buttons, badges and campaign boxes and quickly instructed on how to collect Dollars for Democrats from the crowd before the Senator’s arrival. Then to our minds, impossible but true, we Kennedy Girls, as we named ourselves, would escort our candidate from his plane to the speaker platform and, after his short speech, back to the waiting plane.

From my privileged platform seat on that dedicated day, I tried to crystallize in my brain Senator Kennedy’s brief remarks floating to me in his charming Massachusetts brogue. But later, though I labored many times, I could not recall a single word.

And as we dreamily led our treasured guest toward his waiting plane, the crowd, who had been roped off from the Kennedy entourage, suddenly constricted around me, crushing my moneybox against my chest, knocking my barker hat sideways. What was happening; where was my President?

This frantic scene of Senator Kennedy perplexing his bodyguards, of instinctively changing directions reaching for hands in the eagerly awaiting crowds would become to his supporters one of his endearing behaviors.

But just as suddenly as I had lost him in the crowd, he again appeared just in front of me. A thunderstruck schoolgirl, I gazed up into his handsome, deeply suntanned face, his clear blue eyes and that famous shock of golden brown hair.

More engaging even than his photographs, with dazzling smile and good humor, he extended his hand, thanking me for my support. I knew he was extraordinary. Still clutching my moneybox and my campaign hat, I let go long enough to place my hand in his and mustered only, “You’re welcome and good luck.” Then his bodyguards recovered and circled him again, whisking him to the ramp of the waiting plane. He vanished.

A celebrity among the Young Democrats that night, I discovered that I was the only student who had met Jack Kennedy, albeit briefly, and as I basked in the last fleeting magic of those precious seconds, someone remarked enviously, “I would never wash my hand.”

There would be so many poignant, memorable, tender, passionate, humorous, and historic times in the Kennedy Years: Rose Kennedy introducing her son…the Nixon-Kennedy debates…the first inauguration ceremony televised live…”ask not”…Jackie, John-John, Caroline in the White House…President Dad in his rocking chair…the trip to Ireland…the death of little Patrick…the heartrending struggles and landmarks of new freedoms for minorities…the Cuban Missile Crisis…and finally those soul shaking moments that ended them.

November 22, 1963: my dad’s 46th birthday; he was the same age as President Kennedy. I was a teacher in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Military representatives from Dam Neck Naval Base were lined up car by car around our athletic field at Kellam High School for a procession at the close of our patriotic ceremony—the presentation of American flags—the main flag to be raised each morning from our official flagpole on the front lawn and the accompanying smaller ones to be mounted above each classroom blackboard.

In respectful silence we noticed that the radios on the military cars were beginning to sputter. Then we saw a Naval official run across the field with a message for our Principal, Jefferson Davis. We stirred slightly with a growing discomfort as they talked quietly. Jeff’s face was grave. He walked quickly up to the microphone; the military cars moved in a line towards the gate at the end of the field.

The speaker knowing only that something was terribly wrong instinctively moved away for Jeff to announce the dreadful news: the President had been severely wounded in Dallas. The program suspended, we returned to our homerooms for further instructions and news, but before we were settled, the intercom confirmed our worst fears—that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had died at 1p.m..

In stunned silence and disbelief, we teachers, guidance counselors and administrators moved like automatons to console sobbing students and each other. The intercom came on one last time to announce that school was closing immediately; the buses were already warming up.

Our tears bonded into the strangest silence I had ever known: bodies picked up scattered belongings; feet moved into yellow hulking dread. And in my twelve-mile drive home every car beaconed the mystery of our sorrow.

For days it seemed, no one came or went. That silent vacuum imprisoned America. My housemates and I sat in front of TV.-- vacant…immobile…shrouded with the eternal grief of the assassination of our President…watching over and over the Dallas book depository, the parade, the fatal shots, our hope slumping over leaving us; Jackie Kennedy climbing over the convertible trunk in her expensive blood-stained suit and pillbox hat, groping for the extended hand of one of the motorcade bodyguards. And finally, stranger still, we watched the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV.

The dismal dream continued and we wondered if it would ever end: we knew that we would never be the same; that there would remain a part of us that would be disconsolate. We moved only for the most insistent human needs and all of us walked in the procession beside the riderless horse to make our final salute with little John-John to our fallen hero—in our armchairs in front of TV.

Reflections on a Fallen Hero is a non-fiction narrative, memoir style, tracing my high school idealistic crush on then Junior Senator, John F. Kennedy, to my entry into his presidential campaign through the Young Democrats Club at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to the events at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where I was a teacher on the day of assassination and finally to the experiences of post-week assassination.

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