I was listening to the car radio when I heard the news. John Kennedy was dead--shot by an assassin as he rode through the streets of Dallas. Almost fifty years have passed since that November twenty-second but the memory of the terrible day and those immediately following it is still painful. All of our family were ardent Kennedy admirers. He was popular and probably would have been elected for a second term. Now he was gone. The shooting was at midday and my recollection of the afternoon is blurred. That evening we watched silently and sorrowfully the scenes in Washington. We saw the unloading of the coffin from Air Force One, then Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office as the new President while his wife and Mrs. Kennedy, in obvious total shock, looked on. It couldn't be true. It couldn't--but it was.
As I look back to almost fifty years ago, it seems to me that the period between the 1952 and 1956 election campaigns marked the end of an era--what could be called the Norman Rockwell era. Exhausted by war, the nation was finally at peace. It was prosperous. Most mothers stayed at home to take care of their children and were traditional housewives. Most fathers went daily to work. It was a "Honey, I'm home" time. (This of course applied to average middle class families like ours. Others were less fortunate.) Groceries were packed in paper, not plastic bags. This simple detail was about to change. The great civil rights movement had begun. Such was the background for the election year of 1956.
There is a phrase I have long wanted to use because it has a grand and careless sound as if I were someone of vast importance to whom a lackey has brought a piece of information. Here goes:
As the time for the 1952 election approached, the writing was on the wall. Some of us die-hards were with Truman who, in the unsteady post-war climate, had really done a respectable job. I admired this unassuming man's plain-spokenness. When he said "The buck stops here", he meant it. The war-weary country however, yearned for heroes. The Republican nominee for president was Dwight Eisenhower and as former commander of all forces in the European war theater, he was a genuine one.
The brutal war had ended violently but it had ended. POWs and service personnel were coming home from overseas. A wave of euphoria pervaded the nation. All was right with the world. Truman's popularity rating was high. This period of bliss was short-lived. There were shortages of all sorts--food, clothing, and household appliances. The public wanted them and it wanted them immediately, apparently not understanding that a switch from wartime to peacetime production couldn't be accomplished overnight. There was general unrest and grumbling. There were strikes, the most important of which, a railway strike had lasted for a month when Truman settled it by threatening to draft the workers into the armed forces. This drastic action incurred the wrath and enmity of labor leaders.
If an earthquake of incredible magnitude, followed by an equally gigantic tsunami had struck the United States on December seventh of 1941, the effect could not have been more shattering. The entire country reeled. The greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth had been struck a low blow and had been badly wounded. The ghastly news spread to people without radios and to rural areas. Today the very name "Pearl Harbor" brings back the memory of that terrible day to all of us who were alive at the time and old enough to understand what had happened. Two days later, after an impassioned speech by FDR, Congress declared war on Japan and on the Axis countries. The U.K. under Churchill was our first ally. The other was Russia. Hitler in his greed, had made the mistake of invading it and Stalin was now his mortal enemy.
When in January of 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office as the U.S.A.'s thirty fourth president, the country was in a condition of chaos and utter confusion. He himself had almost been assassinated. He was shaking hands with Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago at a public meeting in Miami, Florida when a man named Guiseppi Zangara fired a shot that fatally wounded Cermak.
The new president had chosen his cabinet well. Its members were dedicated people and with him, they went to work. There were immediate complaints from big business that the federal government was taking over too much and creating a welfare state but if the federal government didn't take action, who would? The new president and his allies persevered and slowly--very slowly--some order began to emerge out of chaos.
Ninety years ago when Warren G. Harding was President, I began to take a dim interest in national politics. I heard the grownups talking about graft and corruption--words which meant nothing to a seven year old but I gathered that my elders were displeased about something important. A year or so later there were giant headlines in the papers about a place called Teapot Dome and I heard people talking about someone named Fall and another person named Daugherty. In July of 1923 President Harding came to California, en route to Alaska.
He was not in good health and his doctors were worried about him. On his return from the north, he stopped in San Francisco where he died suddenly on August 2, 1923. I was nine years old at the time and I remember clearly hearing rumors and conjectures about this. There were a few whispered hints that his wife might have hastened his death because she feared disgrace as a consequence of the administration's problems. This seems highly unlikely although she refused to allow an autopsy.
Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be.
sang poet Robert Browning. He must have been dreaming. Don't let me discourage you but being old is not that much fun. It is, to cite the time-worn cliche, not for sissies. William Wordsworth saw it as
Old age serene and bright and lovely as a Lapland night.
That's a pretty picture and perhaps it fits some exalted few but it seems to me that for us ordinary mortals, "The Old Gray Mare, She Ain't What She Used To Be", although considerably less lyrical, is a far more accurate description of the very elderly.
One of the few advantages of being a very old person is that I have plenty of that precious commodity, Time on my hands. I have used some of it lately to re-read Tolstoy's splendid WAR AND PEACE which I am convinced is the finest historical novel ever written. I urge anyone who is interested in the Napoleonic wars and who also has time, to read it too. It's a book full of riches--vividly drawn characters both real and imaginary, and historical events of a period of turmoil. More than this, the reader meets the great writer himself and becomes acquainted with his thoughts and ideas which are those of a true liberal and a pacifist.
In 1880 when twenty year old Annie Louise Smithwick left her home in County Tipperary, she packed her dowry in the false bottom of her trunk into which she also packed two tennis racquets and the handsome lace wedding veil her mother had worn when she married. Annie's mother was Catholic but her father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant and as such, the possessor of a small but comfortable estate--a thing denied to Catholics under British rule. She was the third of seven children with two older brothers, the eldest of whom would inherit his father's property. Annie was on her way to America to housekeep for her second brother who was working as a civil engineer on the building of a railroad line in the Midwest. She was the oldest of five sisters, all of whom would be dowried by their father. He was in comfortable circumstances and the dowries were considerable--twenty five hundred dollars in gold. Annie brought the veil along evidently thinking ahead. A soft-hearted girl, she had regretfully turned down one proposal of marriage already.
My new credit card has lately arrived and I'm still reeling. It expires in the year 2013. If you, like me, had been born in 1913, wouldn't it set you back on your heels a bit and leave you slightly shaken? I'm close to the edge of the cliff but if I'm still on planet Earth, I'll be a hundred years old.
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