Kennedy was before my time, but the impact his death had upon my parents and others old enough to remember that day fifty years ago always held me in awe. Each of them has their story of where they were and what they were doing when the news found its way into their ears. It’s very similar to how some of us can now reflect on where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001 when those terrible events unfolded for us.
My dad’s story has always been one of my favorites, and since he passed away several years ago, I’ll tell the story for him, though I’m not sure I can tell it as well.
He was a young man and had lived in Montana for only a short time. My father was an avid hunter, fisher and trapper, so as usual he was in the woods that morning. He had gone out, as he usually did, quite early in the morning to check his trap line, hiking by snowshoe up one of his favorite places for outdoors adventure. (Therialt Gulch, near Thompson Falls, Montana if I remember correctly.) When he returned to his car with his catch, the local game warden was parked next to him waiting for him to come out to review his tags and catch. Everything was legal and legit, but while they were talking about how well hunting and trapping season was going, the announcement that the president had been killed came over the warden’s radio. They were both shocked. They both stood out in the cold for some time listening for updates to come over the radio.
The thing that always hit me about the story wasn’t so much where he was or what he was doing, or even that he remembered those things. It was the fact that whenever he told this story you could tell that the impact on him as a person was profound. When he told this story, my dad wasn’t the imposing figure of fatherhood I usually saw him as; he was a man with a soul who had been hurt by the death of a leader he truly respected and admired.
My mom’s story is a bit briefer. She was in the sixth grade (My parents were separated in age by 13 years.) and her class had actually been watching a documentary in which Jackie Kennedy was walking people through the White House. So, basically, she went from having this beautiful put-together woman telling her about the happenings in one of the most important households in the world to seeing that same woman shortly after as she dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s murder.
Again, this is one of the things that humanized my mother and allowed me to see her as a individual dealing with the death of a leader.
I think leaders like JFK and Lincoln are important. Even if we look at their fictional counterparts. Would the Red Wedding scene really matter to us in George R.R. Martin’s works if we didn’t look at the Starks as leaders? How would stories have played out without Allanon there to guide the Ohmsfords during his life and inspire them in death? How differently might things have turned out for Middle Earth if it weren’t for Gandalf? Who’s memory would the companions have stood behind if Sturm and Flint? Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the original ruler of Camelot, King Arthur.
Every good story has iconic characters. Characters that are part of the core of the experience of “living” in the realm the author has created for us, whether they see the end of the novel or not. They have a profound impact on our reading experiences.
I know that many people will look at the characters I’ve listed above and say that it’s wrong to compare them to JFK. However, I think that they’re fictional equivalents of him, and reality being more important than fiction, perhaps they should examine their perspective and the reality of JFK’s life. He was a good man and a good president, but he wasn’t perfect, no more than any of the fictional characters listed were perfect. Gandalf was blind to Saruman’s treachery; Allanon was a manipulator who had negative impacts on the lives of those he manipulated, even if he did save the world; Sturm was an amazing young man as well, but he still lied about his knighthood. Similarly, JFK was an amazing man who inspired our entire nation, but he had his faults.
I think it’s really the characters’ or peoples’ faults that make them so inspiring. It’s what they accomplish in spite of their faults that amazes us. Kennedy inspired us to the send a man to the moon. He was a war hero who commanded two PT boats during WWII. He fought for civil rights. And he made an entire nation believe that we were good and could be better. He did all of that and more while being human. He’s doubtless inspired many writers, whether to write a book about JFK himself or to base a character on him. I hope I write a Kennedy that makes my work come alive and let’s people see their humanity, just like Kennedy’s life let me see my parents’ humanity, even when I was just a kid in awe of all things grown up.
Rest in peace Mr. President. Thank you for making the world we live in just a bit more human.