John F. Kennedy’s opening statement during the 1960 presidential debate.
My first airplane trip, my first (and, thankfully, only) airplane emergency landing and my “sighting” of John F. Kennedy all happened on the same day. That day began my fascination with politics. Fortunately, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for travel, either.
November 20, 1959. I was seven years old. My father’s father had just died, and my mother, baby brother and I were on our way to the funeral in Sturgis, South Dakota. My father and a sister and brother were already there. I missed my grandpa, but I was excited about my first airplane ride.
Our trip began at the airport in Wichita, the air capital. My father was an engineer for Boeing in Wichita, and his enthusiasm for airplanes was infectious. Airplanes roared overhead all day, every day. I loved the noise. It thrilled me. Now I was going to fly in one of “my father’s” airplanes.
As we walked to our gate, my mother paused at a poster of a man with a huge smile.
“John F. Kennedy is speaking here today,” she said. “He’s running for president.”
Kennedy hadn’t officially announced — he’d do that in January 1960 — but he was gathering support across the country. I’d heard his name during the last time we’d visited my grandfather as the relatives talked about current events. Here was a Catholic candidate who had the first real chance to be president. I wasn’t sure what the problem was. Nearly everyone I knew was Catholic. How could that be bad?
Even so, not all of my Catholic relatives voted for Kennedy, I later learned. They didn’t let religious affiliation trump their political views, although they felt an affinity to Kennedy.
As Catholics, my relatives were also talking about the Third Secret of Fatima, which was supposed to be revealed in 1960. What was the secret? Would the Soviet Union be converted to Christianity? Would it be the end of the world? I was fascinated and scared.
We settled into our seats on the TWA Boeing jet. The first leg of our trip would take us to Denver. My mother held my nine-month-old brother as we buckled in and waited to take off.
“Do you see Kennedy?” my mother asked, looking out the window of our airplane.
I saw a large crowd gathered on the pavement beyond our airplane.
She pointed. “There he is. See?”
Everyone was so small, I couldn’t tell one person from the next. I nodded anyway. I wanted to think I saw him. I definitely was going to tell all of my friends at school that I had.
I didn’t realize we were witnessing the beginning of a new age in campaigning. Kennedy and his staff used all the modern tools of the day: air travel, television, advance men who arranged for huge, friendly crowds to meet him and then make sure these crowds were depicted in the news. It was the first modern campaign, according to Gary A. Donaldson, who wrote a book by the same name.
My mother, brother and I took a Frontier propeller airplane from Denver, headed for Rapid City. A stewardess came by, offering us water, milk or hot cocoa. She also asked us in Spanish and French. We hadn’t been in the air very long, when smoke started to fill the airplane. One of the engines was on fire. The pilot made an emergency landing in Alliance, Nebraska, where we crammed into a tiny airport for twelve hours. At first there was nothing to eat but glazed donuts brought in from a nearby shop. Later, sandwiches were delivered, but I was already stuffed on donuts. (Homer Simpson would be proud.) I didn’t have anywhere to sit so I lay under my mother’s chair. She had my baby brother to tend to. Now that I’ve had my own children, I know how stressful the experience must have been.
We finally made it to Rapid City on another airplane. When we got there, we found out that the airline had told my father that we were spending the night in Nebraska, so he’d left. Luckily, a family friend who’d been on our flight from Denver drove us to Sturgis, where we met my father and grandmother at my grandparents’ hotel. It was one of the last times I’d ever stay at the Fruth Hotel, a scene of so many happy childhood memories. We said good-bye to my grandfather, who had been an important figure in my life.
You don’t forget something like an engine fire, but even at my young age I realized that Kennedy was the most exciting part of the flight. Everyone at St. Mary’s grade school was excited about Kennedy’s candidacy when he finally announced it. Even though I was just a second-grader, I felt I was a part of history because I’d kind of, sort of, maybe saw Kennedy.
Students named Kennedy and Nixon attended our grade school, so we had informal mock elections. Even though it was a Catholic school, we were in a Republican state, so it wasn’t entirely one-sided. My parents had followed the career of Dwight Eisenhower when we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, where I was born. They had gone to the airport once to see him arrive with Mamie and get into a limousine. And now we lived in Eisenhower’s state.
The students in my school cheered when Kennedy was elected. His words “Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” rang across the country and are still often repeated.
This was the time in my life when I began to look to the wider world. It was an awakening, which was both engrossing and frightening.
A couple of months after his inauguration, Kennedy established the the Peace Corps. The Bay of Pigs invasion disaster a few months later in April 1961 took the shine off of the new president’s glow. More anxiety was created when the The Berlin Wall appeared on August 13, 1961 (my birthday).
We trooped to the school cafeteria to watch rockets launched into space. We worried about the Soviet Union surpassing us in the space race. John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962. Also in 1962, The Cuban Missile Crisis was the first time I was really frightened and realized that the world could be a very dangerous place. There was a growing interest in fallout shelters. Eighteen Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) complexes were located in the farmland around Wichita, adding to our anxiety. (I later toured a silo with my Girl Scout troop during high school.) We knew that nearby McConnell Air Force Base and Boeing’s military airplane factory could be targets. There were many who didn’t like Kennedy and much we didn’t learn about until later, but in my world, his presidency marked the first and last time I was enthusiastic about a president. Perhaps, it was the naivete of youth. Cynicism creeps in as you realize how fallible our leaders are. The Vietnam War darkened my outlook even more.
The American people fell in love with Jacqueline Kennedy. Her charm, beauty, sophistication and glamor was as appealing, if not more so, than her husband’s. I was crazy about her, myself.
Jackie Kennedy seemed to be on the cover of every popular magazine. She wanted to make sure the White House was a private home for her family but recognized that it as also a national institution. She formed the White House Historical Association to help in restoring the building. Her filmed tour of the redecorated White house was broadcast to 50 million people on television on Valentine’s Day 1962. I was one of those 50 million. She received an honorary Emmy Award for her achievement. I remember her efforts towards the preservation of Egyptian antiquities from the flood waters of the new Aswan Dam in Egypt. I became very enthusiastic about Egypt when I saw it featured in Life Magazine, a major source of my news about the world (along with National Geographic.) I became enamored of Elizabeth Taylor and her role as Cleopatra. She and Jackie seemed to alternate on the cover of popular magazines.
Four years after that day at the Wichita airport, I was cutting out paper turkeys in my sixth grade art class for Thanksgiving decorations when an ashen-faced Sister Kathleen came into our classroom to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot. It was November 22, 1963. Over the next few days, we were in shock as we watched the events unfold on television. Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral cortege with Jackie, Caroline and little John John saluting as his father’s casket passed, the horse with the backwards boots. It was the first national mourning for a president on television.
For more about John F. Kennedy, including links to audio and video clips, go to John F. Kennedy.
Here’s a video about Jacqueline Kennedy, including her work on the restoration of the White House. The next video is more of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates.