Point of View

50 years later: A funeral, a flame and Kennedy's watchwords that still echo

November 24, 2013 

Growing up in semi-remote southern Fairfax County, Va., I didn’t really have a hometown. We collected our mail and newspaper at Pearson’s Store, center of a time-warped rural community known as Newington, alongside the train tracks to Richmond. I went to school in the freshly sprouted suburb of Springfield.

But I definitely had a home city: Washington. It had drawn my parents from the Midwest when my father, an electrical engineer, went to work for the Navy Department during World War II. It was where we went for special meals – the old Hogate’s seafood palace on the Maine Avenue waterfront – and for inspiration amid the museums, monuments and galleries.

For years my mother drove me each week across Memorial Bridge en route to my piano lessons near Dupont Circle. When a little older, I and a couple of friends would roam the corridors of Capitol Hill, where few places were off-limits to the curious.

To this day, cresting Arlington Ridge just south of the Pentagon on what used to be Shirley Highway, now I-395, I’m thrilled to see the city stretching to the horizon, a panorama punctuated by the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the Capitol.

I used to be proud of living in the city’s orbit, proud of those national symbols. I liked to imagine that in the car next to mine, family members arriving from afar were getting their first glimpse of the federal city and pointing excitedly at the landmarks.

When the nation had something to celebrate – an inauguration, a safe return from space – people who understood their roles as official or unofficial Washingtonians went downtown to cheer the parades and to stand in for all those far-flung folks who couldn’t be there. And when it was time for Americans to grieve, many answered that call as well.

We’ve all had the experience: Funerals can draw us together, both in remembrance of the departed and in renewed appreciation of our own lease on life and of our bonds with family and friends.

We want to congregate – to reminisce, to share the rituals, to console the bereaved, to honor another witness to our time-bound humanity and another voyager into the unknown. So it was on Nov. 25, 1963, the day set aside for the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

The nation struggled into that Monday as if in the final tormented scenes of a nightmare.

Millions had seen the images from Dallas, reeled from the anger and the sorrow. Like a macabre Big Bang, the assassination in an instant unleashed a universe of questions, suspicions, accusations that would hurtle down the decades. There would be much time to bore in on those questions of who and why. What Americans knew that day is that a president whose image was of youthful, manly “vigah,” as he would have put it with his Massachusetts twang – the husband of a captivating wife and father of two cute kids – suddenly had smiled his last smile, waved his last wave, quipped his last quip.

More than that, the president we’d lost had set a standard of service that kindled the ideals and aspirations of his fellow citizens. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he so memorably had urged – “ask what you can do for your country.” And this country, he vowed on our behalf at the Cold War’s height, would stand strong for freedom.

As the sound of muffled drums and horses’ hooves echoed up Pennsylvania Avenue, I and my close friend Mike Peters stood at the curb amid the crush of spectators across from the White House. We were high school seniors come to help say goodbye to a president who had seemed to speak with special clarity to our generation.

The cortege, returning from the Capitol on the way to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and then to Arlington Cemetery, circled through the White House driveway. Kennedy family members and special guests – in my mind’s eye I see Jacqueline Kennedy with her black veil and French hero-president Charles de Gaulle in uniform – fell in on foot behind the casket borne on its caisson.

In years thereafter, when returning to Virginia across Memorial Bridge at night, I’d look to the cemetery hillside for the glimmer of JFK’s graveside flame, first lit by his widow on that cold, clear Monday. Those were turbulent, sometimes tragic years for our country. But a president whose time was cut brutally short gave us watchwords of service and sacrifice. Listening and remembering, we can hope to endure.

Steve Ford retired in 2012 as The N&O’s editorial page editor.

He lives in Cary.

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