Alliance for Progress: John F. Kennedy and Rómulo Betancourt at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting. (Dec 16th, 1961)
Everybody has one, unless they’re just unfashionably young. (Sorry, young people: At our age, all we Boomers have left is our collective snobbishness about being the cool generation.)
I was living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where my Dad was doing quasi-diplomatic duty working with the Ecuadorean Navy. I attended Colegio Americano, which was out of town, on the opposite side of the city from our home. I rode to and from school each day on an ancient bus — very fat and rounded, looking like it could have dated to the 1930s. The bus was named “Don Enrique.” Buses had personalities there and then, and were all painted differently. Don Enrique was tan with brown trim. When it wasn’t taking us to school and home again, it worked as a public colectivo, carrying regular fares all around town. Don Enrique had no doors. It had two doorways — in the front and back, on the right-hand side — but they were always open. Young men were expected to jump on and off as the bus moved. It would stop for women, children and old men.
Perhaps I’m overdescribing. In any case, it took an hour to get home every day. I was one of the first picked up in the morning and the last left off, and there were a lot of stops.
My best friend, Tony Wessler, a fellow gringo whose father was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, lived about six blocks away from me. Tony and I had an awesome time living in Ecuador while we were in the 5th and 6th grades. It was a Huck Finn sort of existence. With one station, and that only broadcasting from about 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., there was nothing worth watching on TV — we kept ours stored down in the garage our whole time there, and never turned it on. We were always outdoors, roving, having adventures improvised from the landscape, architecture and materials at hand. We used to have titanic king-of-the-hill battles around construction sites, using scraps of bamboo (which was lashed together for scaffolding) as swords. We climbed up on the walls that ran between all houses there, running along them as though they were sidewalks, leapt from the walls to the iron bars covering windows (usually no more than a couple of feet, most houses having no yards), climbed the bars to the flat roofs, and darted across the roofs. It wasn’t faster to cross blocks rather than go around them, but it was more fun.
On November 22, 1963, Tony obviously took the faster route of running through the streets.
Don Enrique had dropped him off at home as usual, then slowly wound around among the intervening six blocks, dropping off other kids. Then, I got off at the corner of Maracaibo y Seis de Mayo.
We lived in the top floor of a huge house. Our apartment had four bedrooms plus a servants’ wing (really, just a hallway leading to tiny room for the live-in maid, and the laundry room). The landlord, who lived downstairs, was a captain in the Ecuadorean Navy. A few months before, he had played a key role in a military junta’s takeover of the government, and now was a big shot in the administration — I want to say minister of agriculture or something. The coup had been planned, in part, in our apartment. The landlord asked my folks if he could borrow the apartment for a meeting. They went out and left me and my brother with the capitan‘s kids downstairs. The junta would take over the next day. The man he met with would be the head of the junta.
I keep digressing.
As I say, we lived upstairs. The only access to our apartment was a set of enclosed stairs at the side of the house, adjacent to the garage. It was sealed off with a sidewalk-level security door with an anchor design in wrought iron. The door was always locked, but could be opened by someone pressing a button upstairs. As usually, I pressed the buzzer, and the door at the top of the stairs opened at the same time that the security door unlocked.
Up the stairs, I saw my mother and — to my shock — Tony. His chest was heaving. I couldn’t understand how he was there ahead of me. What’s going on? I asked.
“The president’s been shot!” said Tony.
It hadn’t hit me yet. “The president of what?” I asked. After all, we had just had a coup. I figured it was some other local upheaval, or maybe something in a neighboring country.
“The president of the United States,” said my mother. And by this time, it was known that he was dead.
It’s kind of hard to explain the depth of shock that we felt. It was a little like taking a spacewalk and suddenly becoming untethered. We were in this faraway country on behalf of the U.S. government. Ultimately, up the chain of command, the president was the guy who had sent us there. We particularly had a sense of that because we saw the evidence of JFK initiatives all around us. Programs such as the Alianza para el Progreso testified to the effect that Kennedy was the last president I can remember who gave a damn about Latin America. We had a sense of being in a place that our country cared about; we didn’t feel so isolated.
And now, the president was dead.
By this time, I had become an admirer of Kennedy. Three years before, I had wanted Nixon to win. I had wanted him to win so badly that I hid behind a chair in our living room and sulked while my mother was watching coverage of Kennedy’s inauguration. I hadn’t liked his tough talk toward the Soviets during the debates. He sounded to me like a guy who would send my Dad to war. (And as it happens, years later, my Dad would be serving in the VC-infested Rung Sat Special Zone during the Tet Offensive — so, in an indirect sense, I wasn’t wrong.)
But by now, I had become enchanted by the Kennedy aura. I particularly loved the PT-109 story, and it seemed like I had to wait forever for the movie to get down to Guayaquil. I had a comic book about it and everything.
And now, the president who had survived that was dead.
The war story was probably enough for a kid my age. But I think I also had a sense of him as an upbeat, optimistic kind of guy who believed that, as a country, together, we could get things done. With great vigah.
And now what? Here we were, so far away, with no prospect of returning home to God knew what anytime soon. (We returned to the States in April 1965.) I had seen, up close and personal, how fragile a system of government could be. Was the United States falling apart in our absence?
The interest in Latin America that JFK manifested was returned. Everyone seemed shocked and saddened by his death. There was a sense of kinship (to the best of my ability to tell at that age) that seemed rooted in his special status as the only Catholic U.S. president ever, but probably also fed on the glamor of Jack and Jackie, and the sympathy for their two little children.
The first time I remember hearing the word “martyr,” it was in relation to Kennedy. I still don’t know exactly what cause he was supposed to be martyred to, but there was that aura about his death. In any case, the reverence toward his memory that I sensed in the people around me had that tinge about it.
When my school yearbook came out a short time later, there was a memorial page dedicated to the president. It consisted mostly of a large photo of the Kennedys emerging from a church after Mass, looking young and healthy and happy, with Jackie wearing a veil…