I participate in an email group of my college classmates. A few times a year, someone writes something to which others respond, and a conversation carries on for a week or so. In the last few days it's been about the upcoming 50th anniversary of JFKs visit to our college, to dedicate the Robert Frost Library. Memories are flooding back. It was a momentous time, and one of his last pubic appearances. About three weeks later, President Kennedy was dead.
I stood at the top of Memorial Hill, looking down at the field where the helicopters landed, as seen above. And when Kennedy emerged, and, later, when he spoke first in "The Cage," an indoor athletic facility with a dirt floor, and then on the steps of the newly completed library, I thought he was illuminated from within. He stood out more, seemed backlit by his own glow, wherever he went. And when he spoke, it was eloquent, elevated, literate. He assumed we were intelligent enough to take it in. For a kid of nineteen, a naif, a barely emerging person, it was transfixing and transformative. He called upon the best of us, in ways not heard again until, well, you know...
The total student body of my college, back then, was about a thousand guys (it's now coed and doubled in size -- in the sixties, it was all men.) In my class were only 250 or so, an intimate place, where we all knew each other by name. And when the president died, less than a month after he'd been with us, it felt deeply personal, numbing, a destroyer of good memories, a transgression of the most palpable kind. The day after the terrible news, we gathered in Johnson Chapel to hear President Plimpton (on the left in the picture above) say, "He was here. We knew him." (Since its founding in 1821 students at Amherst have attended morning chapel services several times a week. By my time, we were required to attend only half of them, and the services were nearly always non-religious mini-lectures on topical subjects. Starting at 7 am -- or was it 7:30? -- it wasn't always pleasant, other than watching the dean nod off continually. If you had connections with the roll-takers, you could occasionally be credited with attendance while still in bed.) I remember that part, but nothing else. I remember a little of Kennedy's speech at the library, where he spoke of the importance to society of the artist, of poetry. I remember being moved.
And I remember the fact that my dorm, one of the original college buildings, right next to the chapel, was the closest to the library steps from which Kennedy spoke; and my room, on the top floor, was in the corner of the building that most closely overlooked the spot. Secret service guys had toured the building and forbade us from being in the room during the speech. I've always wondered what they thought of the posters on my wall, which I'd gathered the previous summer on a language-study trip through the Soviet Union. "Forward to the victory of communism," in Russian; and a reproduction of a famous painting of Ivan the Terrible, with his murdered son lying across his lap, the insanity in his eyes so chillingly portrayed by the painter, Ivan Repin, that a viewer slashed the canvas with his knife when it was first displayed.
It was something, a visit from the president to a tiny college nestled in the shadow of the Berkshire mountains, where Robert Frost had taught for decades, as had Henry Steele Commager, a founder of modern liberalism, war critic, chronicler of America, at whose dinner table I sat with four or five other students once a week for a semester in my senior year, talking (and hearing) about American History. I wish I had better access to those memories: I suppose they're in there somewhere. It's said that in aging, as short-term memory goes, those older ones become more available. In these times, that seems like something to look forward to.