Away from home with JFK, MLK, and RFK

November 20, 2013

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe

In the summer of 1961, six months after being sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy found himself in the cross-hairs of a dangerous political situation. Kennedys

(National Archives Photo on Flickr)

As did his brother, U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. As did civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. In August of that year, just weeks before I entered high school, I was blissfully unaware of this even as I traveled toward that part of the country where the situation had become explosive.

North to South on the “Overground” Railroad

Mainstreeter at MissoulaAlong with other teenagers and their adult chaperons, I was headed by train from Seattle to Miami Beach to attend an International Luther League convention, a gathering of youthful members of the Lutheran Church from around the world. We chugged-chugged along for two nights until reaching Chicago, spent two more in the Windy City, then boarded B&O Railway cars for an overnight run to Washington, D.C. Along the way, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, which in the mid-19th century more or less divided the U.S. between states where slavery was legal and where it was not. But nearly a hundred years had passed since Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War two years later, so crossing that once politically-charged demarcation went unnoticed by us. Many slaves had escaped from the South to the North on the “Underground Railroad.” We were riding over the same ground, in the opposite direction, escaping from teenage summer boredom that had settled upon us not long after the end of the school year two months earlier. Segregation in housing and employment, and other aspects of life, may have been covertly practiced in my hometown. And although we knew that it may have been more overt in the Deep South, it was still a shock to literally see signs of it, shouting out “White Only” or “Colored,” when we stopped to breakfast in a train station along the rail line from D.C. to Miami. However, our experience with such displays of racial inequality was nothing compared to the enmity between the races that the “Freedom Riders,” who put their lives on the line as they rode buses from the North into the South, endured when greeted with violence on arrival in Southern bastions of segregation.

 It was hot and muggy in Miami. Even though the air-conditioned convention center was a cool refuge from the 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity, we often played hooky from the preachy and boring convention sessions to roam the steamy city. Decades later, I don’t recall if I attended Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appearance at the teen gathering, part of which is shown in this film shot during the convention.

A week after the convention ended, we were back home. School would soon resume. October passed. Leaves fell. Hours of daylight diminished. Umbrellas came out of the closet. Seattle hunkered down for months of damp, drizzly weather. November arrived. A few weeks later, the disappointment of my high school football team losing the annual “Turkey Day” city championship game overshadowed everything else in our teenage lives. The “White Only” signs, and MLK’s convention speech, seen and heard three months earlier, had been all but forgotten. Two years of calm settled over us in Seattle, while the Kennedy brothers and Reverend King saw racial tensions escalate elsewhere in the country.

The End of Camelot

It was nearly midday, Friday, November 22, 1963. My mind was on football, even though my high school team hadn’t made it back to the big Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, and it wouldn’t be playing in it this year, either. The University of Washington Huskies had started out the year with losses to three non-conference teams, but then won five straight games against Oregon State, Stanford, Oregon, USC and California, before falling 14-0 to UCLA the weekend before. They were set to play cross-state rival, Washington State University, the next day. As I sat in the school cafeteria eating lunch with my friends, I learned that just an hour or so earlier that day when I was still in class, President Kennedy had been fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. An account of that day says that it

“…was chilly and damp in Seattle, where the temperature had dipped to 39 degrees that morning. As elsewhere in the rest of the country, housewives (as they were unabashedly called then) were making preparations for Thanksgiving, now less than a week away.”

Not long after we heard the news of the assassination, Kennedy’s body, accompanied by his wife in the blood-stained suit she was wearing at the time her husband was shot, had been placed aboard Air Force One. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as Kennedy’s successor and Commander in Chief.

(Wikipedia Photo)

It was the official end of our school day by the time that the presidential plane had winged its way back to the nation’s capitol. But some of my classmates who were Catholics had probably already left to attend mass at their churches, and the rest of us may have gone home early as well. Flags were flown at half-mast in Seattle. Football games and other events were cancelled or postponed.

(Seattle Times archive of historic Seattle Post-Intelligencer front pages)

My memory of the events of that day are part of a blurred recollection of having watched endless hours of TV news reports about the assassination, and coverage of Kennedy’s funeral, that aired over the next few days. But one thing remains clear. Kennedy was dead and “Camelot” died with him.

Fast Forward Five Years

I was a high school senior when JFK was assassinated.  Six months after his death, I had been accepted for admission to college and, like classmates who would graduate with me, became lax about homework and classroom studies during a spate of fine May weather. Three years later, I took a “sabbatical” from college. I joined the Air Force rather than the Army to increase the odds of being dispatched to a much less dangerous part of the world than Vietnam, where the U.S. was waging an unpopular war, stirring vehement protests on college campuses across the country. In January of 1968, I arrived at the Presidio of Monterey to learn Chinese Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute. When not attending classes or studying in my barracks room, I had a chance to explore California. Presidio_of_Monterey_aerial_view

(Wikipedia Photo)

I visited San Francisco, skied twice in Yosemite National Park, hung out in Carmel, bunked in Berkeley at the “Animal House” chapter of my college fraternity, went to Disneyland, and spent summer weekends down on the Big Sur Coast. In September, I graduated from DLI, took leave to visit my parents, and then flew to San Angelo, Texas, to attend a technical school prior to being assigned to duty overseas. During my stint in Monterey, the country was stunned by two more assassinations. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. died of his wounds after being struck by a rifle bullet as he stood on the second-floor balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two months later, after winning the California Presidential primary election, Robert F. Kennedy left a ballroom in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel and, disregarding a bodyguard’s advice, walked into the hotel’s kitchen where he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian. Kennedy died the following day. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam war caused great social upheaval in the United States during the years following the JFK assassination. That war has long since ended, but new, controversial wars involving the U.S. continue to be fought. Civil rights remain an unresolved issue. JFK, MLK, RFK. I spent time away home when they were alive. Now at home, I’m still alive while they are not. But my memory of them from that time of strife five decades ago lives on. (Post a comment below if you recall where you were and what you were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.)

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