November 22, 1963

In the motorcade, November 22,1963

In the motorcade, November 22,1963

A few months after Kennedy’s visit to Fliegerhorst Kaserne and his famous speech in Berlin, in November 1963, Greg and his sister were at the Saturday matinee showing at the Fliegerhorst base movie theatre. It was there, in the dark, where they first heard of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Although Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, because of the time difference and, perhaps, some delay in announcing the death of the President, we didn’t find out about it until Saturday morning. We were in the movie theatre, mid-morning, watching some now-forgotten feature when the film fluttered to a halt and the lights came up. A disembodied voice on the house speakers told us to get up and go home. “The President of the United States is dead.” We left, walked home to ask our parents what this all meant. And what it all would mean.

Greg remembers a pervasive silence on the base. And flags, lots and lots of flags, at half-mast. “Taps” would play each evening at about 5:00 PM on the base, and that evening the sound of the bugle seemed especially desolate and freighted with meaning.

While Greg was in Germany, Joan was living in Pittsburgh, on the other side of the Atlantic. On that unforgettable Friday afternoon she was at school waiting for the start of band class. Joan played clarinet in the junior high band, and her friend Arlene, also a clarinet player, rushed into the classroom to tell her that the President had been shot. In disbelief Joan’s first reaction was to laugh. When she realized that Arlene wasn’t joking, Joan tried to apologize. For years after she would be upset with herself any time she recalled that moment. The mere idea that someone would shoot, could shoot, the President seemed laughable to her. If only it had been a joke, instead of harsh reality.

The news spread quickly through the classroom. Not knowing what else to do, the students in Joan’s class took their seats, as they did at the beginning of every band class period. Then an announcement came in over the loud speaker, dashing any hope that the assassination was somehow a cruel hoax.

Classes were immediately cancelled and arrangements made to send everyone home. Riding home on the school bus, Joan sat alone and stared out of the window, feeling afraid and uncertain. Having just turned thirteen, she didn’t have enough experience of life, or with death, to put any of what had just happened in perspective.  If the President could be killed, how safe was our country? How safe were we? What might happen next? She remembers hearing some of the kids in the back of the bus sobbing. Shocked, her own tears wouldn’t come. Only later, after looking at the images of the Zapruder home movie in her family’s LIFE magazine, would she fully realize the brutality of what had happened.

The days following were spent watching seemingly endless television broadcasts. On Sunday, returning home just after Sunday school, Joan turned on the television literally seconds after Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. Her dad was in the room and realized what had taken place before she did. She will never forget the shock and disbelief in his voice, “They shot Oswald! They shot Oswald!”

Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting contributed to the sense of horror and uncertainty that we felt during the days following the assassination. Greg and Joan didn’t know it then, but JFK’s assassination was only the beginning of a string of assassinations to follow during those turbulent years: Malcolm X,  Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy.

The decade of the Sixties was certainly a time of new beginnings,  new music, new values, and an awakening of a new youth culture. But like all times of change and upheaval, it was also a time of endings, of bright promises cut short by senseless violence.

Kennedy at Fliegerhorst Kaserne

Reviewing the troops at Fliegerhorst Kaserne

Reviewing the troops at Fliegerhorst Kaserne

President Kennedy was the first president we really remember. Kennedy was assassinated when we were just thirteen, and like many of our generation we can remember what we were doing and where we were at the time.

Greg actually had a Kennedy experience about five months prior to the assassination, when he was living in Germany at Fliegerhorst Kaserne near the town of Hanau.  On June 25, 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Fliegerhorst Kaserne, where he was greeted by 15,000 soldiers and nearly as many German locals. Kennedy had decided to visit a military facility in Germany to make a statement about America’s readiness to defend its interests in the context of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and, most recently, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Anemone Rueger has published an interesting article about Kennedy’s visit to Fliegerhorst (see “Remembering JFK at Fliegerhorst Kaserne: Presidential visit at height of Cold War resonates 40 years later” at http://www.3ad.com/history/cold.war/feature.pages/kennedy.photos.htm/article.1.htm.) She explores the motivations for his visit and why Fliegerhorst was selected for a Presidential review of the troops.

Greg was just shy of thirteen years old when Kennedy visited. His father, a senior non-commissioned officer on the base, was in charge of missile security. Security for a presidential visit, obviously, was going to be a nightmare, and Greg remembers his father’s long, late nights in the weeks running up to the visit.

There was a missile base at Fliegerhorst, an airfield, and also armored vehicles like tanks. All of the armament was put on display on the tarmac of the airfield. The spectators, like Greg and his family, watched Kennedy review the troops from bleachers arranged next to the airfield. Greg remembers huge crowds, rank after rank of soldiers standing at attention, and row upon row of aircraft, tanks, and missiles. It was a classic cold war tableau. Greg remembers seeing Kennedy from a distance as he drove slowly along the ranks. Later Kennedy would also make some remarks and speak to the troops at the Fliegerhorst Mess Hall.

Kennedy reviewed the troops from the rear seat of a classic early 1960’s American convertible. Who that convertible belonged to he doesn’t know, but such cars were not that common in Germany at the time (although some NCOs and officers did drive them; Greg’s father at one time drove a large Pontiac sedan in Germany). Kennedy left the Kaserne in a Mercedes convertible, so the viewing automobile must have belonged to someone on the base. Perhaps the commanding officer?

This little visit didn’t make much news and was overshadowed in history by Kennedy’s speech the next day in Berlin on June 26th, when he made the famous declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

A few months later, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated.  Even now, whenever Greg sees footage from Dallas, of Kennedy in another convertible on another sun-drenched asphalt surface, his mind flashes back to his own brief contact with greatness. He remembers another convertible, rolling slowly but perpetually away, into history and memory.

Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960

Image via Presidential Archive Kennedy Nixon Debates

Image via Presidential Archive Kennedy Nixon Debates

Joan and Greg were born just over three months apart in 1950, and Harry Truman was in the White House, about to deal with the invasion of South Korea. Of course, we don’t remember much (well, actually, anything) about President Truman or that war. Greg has some interesting items brought home from Korea and a few photographs of his father at Inchon. Greg’s father spoke even less about Korea than he did about World War II.

Dwight Eisenhower was president for much of our early childhood, and Greg remembers a red handkerchief his grandfather Jesse had that was emblazoned with the slogan “I like Ike.” Grandpa Jesse was, at least for that time, a rare West Virginia Republican in a heavily Democratic state. It was odd, because he was a member of the United Mine Workers, a union man. I guess he truly did “like Ike.”

Most of the time, neither of us thought much about Presidents, parties, or politics. We doubt any other kids our age did much thinking about them either. The election of 1960 was probably the one exception. Joan recalls the excitement the Kennedy/Nixon campaign and debates generated at her grade school in the fall of 1960. Kids argued on behalf of their chosen (or should we say their parents’ chosen) candidate among themselves. Some kids in her Lutheran Sunday School voiced the fear that the Pope would actually run the country if Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, were elected.

Joan and her best friend, Judy, disagreed on which man would make the better president. They were in gym class together, practicing somersaults and backward rolls on the mats, when they had a (slightly) heated discussion. Joan argued for Nixon, and Judy for Kennedy. In retrospect Joan admits that her choice was based on the fact that her parents were staunch Republicans who always backed the Republican contender. She admits her choice was in no way researched or informed. Judy’s parents were voting for Kennedy, but it is quite possible that Judy’s decision was, unlike Joan’s, actually an informed one because Judy was a really smart kid! The election, by the way, in no way impacted their friendship. Joan doesn’t remember ever discussing it again once the election was settled.

The debates held on television seemed like a big deal at the time. We didn’t realize it then, but these were the first ever televised presidential debates. Joan remembers the Nixon/Kennedy debates being on the family’s black and white television, preempting shows like Andy Griffith, but she herself didn’t have much interest in watching them. After the first debate she heard from kids at school about how “bad” Nixon looked compared to Kennedy, but she doesn’t remember noticing  it herself when she watched a little of that first debate.

Little did we know that these debates would fundamentally alter political campaigns and the politics of power in America. For an insightful analysis of the debates see: “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World” at http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html

A lot would change for us personally in the next eight years. In 1968, both of us were moving away from the political views of our parents and establishing political opinions of our own. Like many of our generation we were becoming caught up in the ideological and cultural changes sweeping the country. Joan would become more liberal and Greg would come into increasing conflict with his extremely conservative father. And Nixon, the loser in the 1960 campaign, would re-emerge on the political scene. The stage was set for the unsettling years to come.