I never celebrated my twelfth birthday. As was surely true for others born on November 23, my party was canceled the instant we learned President John F. Kennedy, that boyish, energetic, and very complicated man, had been assassinated in Dallas.
The horrific news arrived while sitting in Mr. B's sixth-grade math class at Middlesex Junior High in Darien, CT. Over the scratchy PA system, our principal announced that the president had been shot, classes were cancelled immediately, and that our regular buses were already lined up out front, waiting to take us home. Usually, Friday afternoon dismissal was a chaotic free-for-all, a surge of thrilled adolescents scrambling for the exits. Not that Friday. We silently shuffled down the stairs, stumbled outside, and stepped up into the yellow buses, their doors snapping shut.
That Kennedy was a transformative figure I had known since he launched his 1960 run for the White House, and I campaigned for him as only an eight-year-old could.
One Saturday that fall, my father took me to a metallic trailer parked in an empty lot adjacent to the local fire station; it was emblazoned with a large banner reading "Independents for Kennedy." Nothing could have been more provocative in a town that had voted straight Republican since the 19th-century, and I recall my father, an old-school southern Democrat, laughing about the provocation. I didn't really understand this, of course, but I have a sharp memory of standing on the trailer's wooden transom, quickly checking to see if anyone was witnessing our social misstep.
Once inside, I forgot all about the outside world. The trailer was festooned with red, white, and blue balloons, decorated with photos of the soon-to-be first family, and crammed with Kennedy campaign biographies and leaflets, a bewildering array. Even the cheery volunteers were dressed to the nines, sporting snappy straw boaters wrapped with Kennedy bumper stickers, their chests weighted down with buttons large and small. These they eagerly passed out, all the while pressing shiny pencils into my hands. Blaring over a small record player was Frank Sintra's campaign jingle, "High Hopes." The lyrics of which apparently stirred my soul, for I played it endlessly, driving my sisters mad:
Everyone is voting for Jack,
'Cause he's got what all the rest lack,
Everyone wants to back Jack
Jack is on the right track....
Is it any wonder that two days later I showed up at in Mrs. Hubbard's 3rd grade classroom with a Kennedy button affixed to my shirt and the newly sharpened Kennedy pencils in hand, ready for action?
I got it, too. For weeks, recess games of tag split along party lines, and there were precious few Democrats. We were run ragged until Nancy Van Sciver, the fastest kid in our grade, broke ranks, joining Jack's cause. I'm pretty sure that's when I lost my heart to underdog campaigns.
And why on a Friday four years later, when I finally got home from school and walked into my mother's embrace, I broke down.