A JFK birthday card on the day of the assassination

Nov. 22, 1963, was my 18th birthday. I was a freshman at Harvard. The JFK aura was big at the university. Professors were serving in the administration, consulting with the president, shaping the New Frontier. When I went to classes in Harvard Yard, it was easy to imagine walking in Kennedy’s footsteps. In four years I would graduate, and like Kennedy, be admitted to “the fellowship of educated men and women.” Good things would follow. I felt sure of that.

That morning, I received a birthday card from my sister Alice. It had a caricature of Kennedy twirling a football. The card read: “CELEBRATE your BIRTHDAY the American  way … with VIGAH!”

“Vigah” was the way Kennedy pronounced “vigor” in his patrician New England accent, and it was often parodied. He used the word a lot when he was running for president to convey an image of youthfulness. He was the guy playing touch football, a candidate much different from the stiff Richard Nixon and the incumbent Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who was 70 and had suffered a heart attack in office.

A few hours later, I returned to Pennypacker Hall and found a knot of students on the second-floor landing. They were listening to a transitor radio. They said Kennedy was dead. I thought they were nuts. In the 50 years since then, that birthday card has remained with me as a symbol of the utter unpredictability of life.

At 18, I was caught up in the Camelot mystique. I liked Kennedy’s idealism, intelligence and style. I was naïve about politics. I didn’t give much thought to the implications of the Bay of Pigs invasion, nor the hypocrisy of threatening the Soviet Union for putting missile bases in Cuba while the United States had nuclear missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow. When a Buddhist monk burned himself to death in Hue, Vietnam, in 1963, to protest repressive policies of the South Vietnamese government, I knew little about Kennedy’s support for that regime. I knew even less about the history of colonialism in Vietnam.

In his novel 11/22/63, Stephen King sends his main character back to 1958 with a plan to prevent the assassination of Kennedy and reshape a dark era in American history. It’s a gripping novel and delightful period piece. Remember the high hopes for the Ford Edsel? It’s intriguing to speculate what would have happened if Kennedy had continued in office and won a second term. Would Vietnam have become a footnote in U.S. history rather than the nightmare it became for the baby boom generation?

Before that day, I never imagined a war in Southeast Asia would consume 10 years of my life and entangle me in a legal mess with the government that put any thoughts of a career on hold. I never thought that I, with vague dreams of being a Middle East diplomat, would become radicalized and adrift through the late 1960s and most of the ’70s. I was fortunate to catch the last train to the middle class in my early 30s.

Regardless of the what-ifs of history, the assassination locked in the idealism that Kennedy projected. It sanctified to a generation of baby boomers the idea of creating a better society. For decades, baby boomers have carried this legacy forward and helped create a more just and equitable society than the one they knew as children. Through their example the torch of idealism and the spirit of JFK will be passed on to another generation.

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