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Friday, November 22, 2013

He was My President

During the summer of 1963 I got to go on the best vacation of my life: a summer trip to Europe with seventeen other kids from my school district and two chaperons. We did the grand tour for six weeks. There were many memorable stops and events. I got drunk for the very first time at the Moulin Rouge in Paris where I saw a couple of nearly naked women except for pasties. We ran wild in the rainy streets of Salzburg, and we swam in the Mediterranean west of Rome. But it was in Berlin that two events became etched in my memory card.

Kennedy motorcade in Berlin 1963

On June 26th 1963 three other kids and I left our group to see if we could get a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy. He spoke at two different locations on his famous trip to Berlin. He gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at the Sch├Âneberg Rathaus (City Hall) in Berlin. We went to the other location, the Free University of Berlin. We got to our location to get a good view of the Presidential motorcade. We stood in the hot sun for what seemed like an eternity. The longer we waited, the more people arrived. By the time the motorcade arrived the sidewalks were crowded with Germans. As he approached the crowds roared with applause. The limousine got near and I raised my camera above the assholes that had crowded in front of me to catch a better view of My President. I as so excited to see him that I took four very blurry photos. But more than the photos I remember the adulation the German people had for Our President. So many of the people who lined that section had brought American flags. And they screamed in delight of the man who symbolized America. It was a feeling I will never forget. Equally amazing was the reaction of my often bunk-mate, Bill Phillips. He was a waspish little Republican if there ever was one. We lived only a few blocks apart. He, like me, was Irish and freckled, and as I later found out, gay. Only his family was Republican and anti anything Democrat. How surprised I was to see Bill scream and yell for Kennedy. He's retired now and lives in the California with his partner of over 32 years. I wonder if he is still a Republican.

We spent three or four days in Berlin. We took a bus ride into East Berlin which had been walled off to keep its citizens from escaping to the west. We saw buildings that had been bombed into rubble years earlier during World War II. There were blocks and blocks of destroyed buildings more than two decades after the war had ended.  I remember that bus ride quite well. I can still see the blue sky which sharply contrasted with the blah new buildings. There were few trees. And certainly there were no bill boards nor colorful signs.  The landscape was so blah and devoid of color. It was like watching an episode of  The Twilight Zone. Only it was real.

I think it was the same night we went to a movie theater on the Kurf├╝rstendamm. We watched To Kill a Mockingbird but we listened to it in German. No matter what language we heard, the story was so easy to understand. The imagery as I said before is etched into my memory. The images of 1930s south. Of poverty and of privilege. Of Scout and Jem and Boo Radley. Of Atticus Finch defending an innocent black man accused of violating a white girl. Of intolerance and prejudice. Of a lynch mob.

Four months later I walked into the Lakewood High School cafeteria just around 11:30 when I picked my my lunch and headed toward my normal table. Before I could set my tray down Dennis Becker said "Gary, President Kennedy has been shot!"  "What? You're joking."  No, it is true or words to that affect. He told me as much as he knew. I put my tray down and walked back into the hallway looking around as other students walked the halls oblivious to what was unfolding. I then went to the student store to see if someone had a transistor radio so that maybe I could verify what Dennis had said. There was a radio, and there was confirmation. He had been shot

I went back to the cafeteria and sat there in disbelief.  I could not eat my meal. How could this be?  At some time during the afternoon, I don't recall exactly when, a voice came over the school loud speaker system that announced that the President had died and said classes would continue until normal closing time. We were trapped in school until 3:15 when classes let out.
I lived with my dad in an apartment a few blocks from school. As soon as I got home I saw The Denver Post outside our front door. It confirmed what I already knew. I kept that paper as a remembrance of that day. I went inside and turned on the television.  I watched the black and white images of the scenes from Dallas earlier that day. I remember calling my dad and discussing what had happened. He stayed at work until his normal quitting time - 9:00 PM. I sat there in that apartment by myself not understanding how in the world this could have happened. I remember waking up on Saturday morning thinking the day before had been a bad dream. But, sadly, it wasn't.

Two days later I was watching the ongoing and unending coverage of everything. A television camera was in the basement of the police department where Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to be transferred to another facility. I thought to myself this is the most stupid thing imaginable. Someone on the street will rush the truck and kill Oswald.  I was wrong. He didn't even make it to the truck. Oswald was shot on live TV. This was like beyond belief. How could this happen in America? How? Why? Like Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, my innocence was lost.

Monday came.  The funeral went on all day, or so it seemed. Finally, at the end of the afternoon the President's body was laid to rest at Arlington. It was over.  My older brother and his wife were going bowling that night and asked me to watch their two kids. I agreed but could not understand how anyone could do something so trivial as to bowl on a day like this.

School reopened on Tuesday.  At some point during the day I walked past the school emblem embedded in the floor at the front door of the school. As I passed I heard one of the jocks on the football team say, and I will never forget his words until the last day of my life, "You know what John-John got for his birthday?  A jack-in-the-box." The other guy laughed, and I cringed.  Maybe you can excuse this idiocy to this kid's youth. But I am not one to forgive this kind of behavior.

Sometime between the sixth and seventh grade (1959-1960) I decided that instead of being an architect (which I thought would be fun except that I am horrible at math), I would become a cinema photographer. As I watched history unfold on television, magazines, and newspapers of the next three years, I decided to become an attorney, like Kennedy. President Kennedy made a huge impact on many of the young people of my generation.  I think our country became a better country because of him. We started movement away from the racial divide. We headed up into space, which as a bi-product made possible all of the gadgets that now rule our lives. We stood up to and later defeated Communist Russia in the Cold War. America helped save the world from the Nazis during World War II, but it was Kennedy who made many people in many different lands love our country as never before.

For those few moments I got to see Kennedy drive down the street in West Berlin, I will be forever grateful.  He was my President.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your memories of that day, Gary. History is best viewed through the eyes of others.

And I loved the line "He was a waspish little Republican if there ever was one..."

Gary Thomas said...

The last time I saw Bill Phillips in person was New Years Day 1980 in New York City. We have talked once but exchange Christmas (not holiday) cards each year. We have not discussed politics, but I think it likely he is no longer a Republican.

Perry said...

I've been reading your blog for the past year. I've learned so much about Key West real estate, but this posting was extra special. I was born in 1960, so I was too young to understand the events of that fateful day. Thanks for sharing.


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Key West, Florida, United States
I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.