Kennedy Comes to Tacoma

I wrote this while I was in Dallas in June of 2010. I finally had gotten a chance to visit ‘the grassy knoll,’ and was saddened once again recalling the events of 1963. As a sixth grade student in Tacoma, I had been among those listening to his speech in September, then only two months later, he was gone. This is how I remember it.

It was on the news. President Kennedy was coming to Tacoma. He would be stopping at Cheney Stadium, and would be addressing a crowd there of students and local politicians. The park was just six blocks away from our home, and I was so excited.

School had started up again, and I wished all this was happening in August when I could have stood along 19th Street and waited to see his motorcade go by. Just a glimpse of the President! But no, I would be sitting at my desk at DeLong Elementary School in Mr Selforse’s 6th Grade Class. At least the windows faced south in the direction of the baseball park, and even though I wouldn’t be able to see it from where I sat, I could at least daydream through the window in that direction.

Soon, we were told that certain students would be chosen to attend, and I was beside myself with anticipation. I would sit and look at Mr. Selforse and send mind messages to him to choose me. I have never known for sure how the selection was made. Maybe it had something to do with grades, maybe it had something to do with potential, but in the end it may be determined that it had something to do with mind control. Somehow my name was one on the list chosen to attend the President’s speech. I was beyond excited! My mother acted as though she knew that I would be chosen all along. My father reacted with, “Why would they chose you?” Point was, I didn’t know. It was chance, it was magic, it was Karma! It was wonderful!

I spent days figuring out what to wear. I studied pictures of Jacqueline in “Look” magazine, and couldn’t find anything in my closet that would look like something she would wear. She was beautiful, I was 11 years old. But in my 11 year old mind, maybe he would smile at me in the crowd if I was pretty enough, so I strove to dress me up a bit. I chose my green and blue plaid skirt with nylons and my blue fuzzy sweater. I thought it looked good with my eyes. Maybe he would notice. If not him, then this agents might. I slept in hair rollers the night before, hoping to coax my straight hair into the “flip,” which Jacqueline had made popular. Unfortunately, the next morning, I could only get one side to actually flip. If I flipped the left side, the right side would fold under. If I worked on the right side, it would flip, but the left side would fold under. I ended up by molding it into shape with tons of hairspray. I don’t remember having asthma symptoms before this time, but I do after. Interesting. Finally I was ready to go to school, and walking through the fog on that September morning made both sides of my hair go limp. But I still looked sharp for an 11 year old, and those of us lucky enough to be chosen were ushered into the Cafeteria to wait to walk to Cheney Stadium. I didn’t know many of the other students that were chosen, and I walked in silence anticipating the days’ events.

Once we had arrived, we were shown where to sit. DeLong students were allotted seats along the first base outfield. American and Washington State Flags were flying everywhere by the podium. A sense of anticipation filled the air, people were talking loudly, and I could hear laughter everywhere. I had never been to the ball field before, and sat quietly taking it all in. I didn’t wear glasses then, but clearly needed them, as I couldn’t see where the President would be giving his speech. It wasn’t until the event started that if I squinted just right, I could see a person standing between the flags. I could tell from his voice that he was not President Kennedy. We all stood to honor the flag.

Soon, it was announced, “. . .introduce to you, the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy!” Everyone was standing. We all sat down as he began speaking. His voice! His accent! He was there! This was no recording, this was not on TV, I was actually hearing him speak. As I looked toward the podium, I thought I could actually see him. There he was, between the flags, behind home plate. From time to time he moved his arms. I tried to pay attention to what he was saying, but it seemed so unreal. From where I sat, he looked so tiny. If I held my fingers up, he would have been about an inch tall. But he was the President of the United States, small enough to fit in my purse.

From time to time he would say something funny, and everyone would laugh. Sometimes he would say something profound, and everyone would clap. I didn’t. I was in awe. The only thing I remember from his speech was that the students that were in attendance that day would be the new generation of America. He challenged us to step up and accept the responsibilities before us to bring change, creativity and guidance to our Nation. Somehow, at 11, I had never thought of this. That someday I would grow up, and become responsible for the direction our United States would be taking. In fact, the whole future of the US would be in my generation’s hands within just a few years. Yet he seemed happy about this, he seemed excited about the possibilities that our education, our knowledge of the past, and our young energy would provide. All too soon it was over, and he left the podium.

It was then that I remembered to look for Jacqueline, but I could not see beyond the podium to view the other people on the stage. I thought that perhaps she had been seated somewhere in the audience, and I quickly looked around me to see if she could be there, but I didn’t see her. In fact, I was so intent on finding where she was, that I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the event. It was like playing a live Where’s Waldo game, only it was Where’s Jacqueline? But I never found her, and it was time to go.

I was hoping to see his motorcade go by as we walked back to the school, but we were told that he had left earlier, while the other speakers were at the podium. I felt cheated—all that searching, and Jacqueline would already have left. I was quiet the remainder of the day. When fellow students asked me what it was like, I felt all chocked up about it. So I answered in one word, “Tough.” Though it sounds silly now, in my world at the time, that word said it all. “Tough” meant cool, mind bending, and wonderful all in one. Something that would never happen again in my lifetime. And yes, something I would share with my children and grandchildren should I ever have them. I felt older than day. I felt challenged with the responsibility of my future. My future had become mine, something I was challenged to build.

When I got home that evening, my mom and dad wanted to know what he said. I don’t know what I told them, but they thought I hadn’t paid attention. Perhaps blown off the awesomeness of what I had been allowed to witness. But it had been such a deep experience for me that I wanted to hold it to my heart for awhile. As such, it made me begin questioning the values and philosophies of the previous generation that had brought us to the decisions our nation had made. The fear of Communism, and the USSR. The Second World War. Commercialism, the political arena. Each of their values went through my young mind as I tried to sort out the dilemma:  if it was up to me, would I have decided this way? It made me very aware of what I did not know, so I began asking questions. Why did the world work the way it did, and why wasn’t it working well? What could be done about this? Kennedy had challenged my mind that day, and made me realize that childhood was a transitory period that was best used in learning how to deal with my world, my reality. It was really the first time I realized that I soon would be flung into the adult world, and I would have to make my way. It was up to me to define what that would be.

c. 2011, Fai Dawson