Gullixson: For those who see JFK as history, not memory

  • FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 file photo, 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father's casket in Washington, three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy, center, and daughter Caroline Kennedy are accompanied by the late president's brothers Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (AP Photo/File)

List me among those who are ready for the 50th anniversary assassination coverage to pass. Why? Because for a growing number of us, it's an important piece of American history, but it's not our narrative.

The day after the shooting, Walter Cronkite was already telling the millions glued to their television sets that Nov. 22, 1963, would be a day by which they would mark their lives. Americans would forever be asked where they were when Kennedy was shot and what they were thinking.

But I have no real answer. After hearing the news, I'm told my mother bolted into the living room to find me staring at this strange news program that had interrupted "Romper Room." I had no idea what I was watching. All I knew was that this man stumbling emotionally over his words most certainly was not Miss Mariann.

I defer my memory to my mother on this subject, however.

If I cried that day it was not because I was watching the death of a president or the passing of an age, but because I saw my family grieving.

I was the same age as John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., who had his third birthday 50 years ago tomorrow — the day they buried his father. Newspapers across the nation carried the well-known photo of young "John-John," as his father called him, saluting the procession carrying his father's casket en route to Arlington National Cemetery.

The nation would like to remember that John-John really understood that he was saluting his father that day and not just imitating the soldiers around him. But the evidence suggests he was no less bewildered than any other preschooler that day.

A lesser known picture not captured on film was of John Jr. before the funeral standing with quiet adults gathered around a flag-draped casket in the Capitol rotunda. According to reports at the time, he was as still as anyone could expect a 3-year-old to be, but his eyes began to wander from soldiers to the ceiling, and he became restless.

With a nod from Jackie, John was taken into a nearby office where, according to press accounts, he found a small flag. He asked if he could take it with him. "I want a flag to take home to Daddy," he said.

My heart breaks as much for that story as the image of him saluting a procession that he, like the millions his age and younger, couldn't really begin to fathom.

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