Waving to President Kennedy

William Wayne Weems 


2019 by William Wayne Weems

Photo of President Kennedy in a motorcade.
The picture above was taken during President Kennedy's May 1963 visit to Nashville. Visible in the shot is the President, Governor Clement, Senator Kefauver, and (in the "jump seat") Senator Al Gore Sr. Others who were stated to have ridden along with the President at one time or another during his visit included Congressman Richard Fulton and Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley.

Nashville, Tennessee, Saturday, May 18, 1963. I had just turned nineteen years of age a few days before, but that day I was again assisting my Father in his shoe store at 1053 Third Avenue South. A certain excitement was in the air; Nashville was to have a visit from a sitting President of the United States for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt had stopped by in 1934. John F. Kennedy was to arrive at the airport and ride in his 1962 Lincoln limousine to Vanderbilt University, where he would make a speech noting the 90th year since the founding of that institution and the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Newspapers had printed his motorcade route and planned schedule the day before. They also noted the limo's clear plastic bubble top had arrived early in case of rain....but that Saturday was clear and sunny.

I got permission from my Father to wander down three blocks or so to the President's route from Nashville's airport along the four lane Murfreesboro Road. Almost no one else seemed to be there. I quickly moved across the road to a concrete right turn divider on the other side of the Third Avenue intersection. While I felt somewhat exposed on this concrete island, I knew if the police didn't demand my removal I would have a relatively up close view of the President. But there was no noticeable official scrutiny of the motorcade rote, and perhaps emboldened by my presumption four individuals soon joined me.

It was an older gentleman and his three grandchildren. All had the very thick "coke bottle" eyeglasses prescribed to the visually impaired at that time. The gentleman introduced himself, and revealed that he had witnessed the visit of FDR as a child in 1934. His sight, he said was almost gone (ruefully brandishing a "blind man's cane") but he had bought his grandchildren to see Kennedy in person that day lest their vision difficulties later become as severe as his own. He apologetically made an unexpected request....could I narrate they things I saw for his edification? I readily agreed.

By that time I could see activity down the road. I reported on the two helicopters sweeping overhead and a slowing of the distant procession. Kennedy's motorcade had pulled abreast of the "projects", low income housing largely occupied by those we then called "colored people", and swarms of folk entered the highway, nearly surrounding the President's Lincoln. I noted to my companions that Kennedy appeared to stand in his moving vehicle and wave to the crowds, much as newsreels showed Hitler doing in his Mercedes. But a police cordon was quickly established and the motorcade moved on.

I related that now the roadside crowds had noticeably thinned the motorcade was picking up speed. I said it appeared the President was sitting in the back seat of his open car, his back turned to us as he spoke to then Governor Frank Clement and Senator Estes Kefauver. As the Lincoln drew abreast of us I ruefully noted the President still had his back turned. Then the older gentleman beside me gave an astonishingly loud "Hurrah", waving his cane over his head. We were close, all right....every head in the back of the limo quickly snapped toward us. Those were much simpler times, but I was immediately fearful that Federal Agents would suddenly appear and wrestle the lot of us to the ground.

President Kennedy was instantly on top of the situation. Flashing his famous thousand candlepower grin, he turned in his seat and waved at us! I quickly waved back, an embarrassed grin on my face, all the while urging the children "wave! wave!". But the limo had not slowed, and the President was gone in little more than a heartbeat. After saying my farewells to my traffic island companions I returned to my Father's shoe store. Much later, reading of President Kennedy's lower back problems, I had occasion to wonder just how much his gesture to we four lone bystanders had cost him.

In November of that same year, John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas while riding in the same auto. His assassin fired a World War II Italian rifle bought by mail order. Coincidentally my Father had earlier purchased such an Italian mail order rifle as a "deer gun", seduced by its low price, but he was disappointed by its performance. He gave that rifle to me so that I could learn how to shoot such a weapon, and by May of 1963 I had fired three full boxes of ammunition out of it. I have to confess that my Father's rifle did NOT somehow urge me to take it and shoot the President, nor did any such notion ever enter my or my Father's head. They outlawed such mail order sales anyway.

A neighborhood boy wrote to say he enjoyed my account of Kennedy's visit, and added an account of his own encounter that day:

"I was at Vanderbilt then and attended the speech. It was, as you mentioned, a huge event and well attended. As I was heading to the speech with others, the presidents motorcade passed by us. On the other side of the road was a holiday inn with a swimming pool. Several girls in bathing suits ran to the edge of the holiday inn property line to yell and wave at the president. The president looked over at the girls, smiled, half stood up, and said, “stop the motorcade” in his New England drawl. Of course the motorcade did not stop but kept moving. It was, however, a humorous incident that reflected the president’s roving eye which, as we found out later, created problems in his marriage and his presidency."

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