It is one of the clichés of 20th century pop-history that everyone of a certain age will remember where they were at the time of JFK’s assassination. It so happens this is actually true in my case (though, inexplicably, not true for the first moon landing.)
On Nov. 22, 1963 I was sitting in my Grade Five classroom at Fenside Dr. PS in Toronto. I can even picture where I was in the classroom, very near the centre—which must have been the teacher’s choice, not mine. Over the intercom, the school principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot and killed while in Dallas.
I was always good with geography. I knew exactly where Dallas was. “Darn southerners!” I blurted out. I can’t remember if anyone else said anything. It was a sweeping generalization, even for a ten-year-old, and I hope I don’t harbour any long-standing resentment against southerners. Yet I was a product of my time. Even my ten-year-old-not-even-a-native-American sensibility was aware of the fact that President Kennedy and the “south” hadn’t seen eye-to-eye on many things, that Southern politicians had, in fact, been obstructionist in many ways. (Has very much changed, I sometimes wonder?)
So for me to blurt out what I did was maybe not surprising.
I’m sure I had not stopped to think that Vice-president Johnson himself was a southerner. Almost certainly I had no understanding that Johnson was a great supporter of the space program and had probably made an important contribution in Kennedy deciding to send men to the moon.
I was among many millions of Kennedy admirers in the early sixties. I don’t know why. I was swept up in a phenomenon that I could feel but didn’t understand. I even have a fuzzy memory of watching at television debate between Nixon and Kennedy and thinking that Nixon looked better on the TV than Kennedy. It was probably more a judgement of the contrast capabilities of our TV than anything and maybe the fact that Kennedy seemed to have a weird accent.
And so my fellow Americans, I say to you: ask not what your country can do for YOU, but what YOU can do for your country [applause, but Kennedy continues]
My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you but what TOGETHER, we can do for the freedom of man.
And from another speech:
In 1990 the age of space will be entering its second phase. And our hope is that in this great new sea, as on earth, the United States is second to none.
You were a complex man, President Kennedy. Brilliant, yet flawed.
But for one thing I unreservedly thank you:
We choose to go the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard!