Friday, February 04, 2011
When Will I Ever Learn?
Eight inches of snow fell by the morning of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. January 20th, 1961, dawning a dazzlingly cloudless blue, but a bone-chilling 20 degrees with 20 miles-per-hour blowing in the wind. Cold that hurt. I know. I was there; too young, maybe, to understand the questions, let alone the answers, but it was a beginning.
Eight inches on the ground hardly fazes a Hoosier; I’d gladly trade the D.C. weather for that of this week in South Bend; but it is a shock if you’re a Georgia person and you’re standing in it. We were standing in it. Close enough to see Kennedy away up there, but not in the paying section. Good loudspeakers—no giant screens yet.
My older sister’s Saint Pius 10th sophomore class had persuaded my parents to chaperone them to the inauguration. Catholics in Atlanta were thrilled that Kennedy-Johnson had won, and carried our state despite the pervasive anti-Catholic rhetoric and the non-candidate Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, who carried Alabama and Mississippi, heralding the passing of the “solid South” to the Republican Party. Our delegation was enough to fill a Southern Railway car of a dedicated overnight train. I went along as ex-officio brother, though I was a freshman at Atlanta’s other Catholic school, Marist military academy.
For us, we were brimming with anticipation. The Terminal Station was on Spring Street in Atlanta. Downtown streets had been raised since the Civil War, and the train we boarded was “underground.” Many high-schoolers had not been on a long train ride. My sisters and I had been on one airplane, and many long car trips, but the train was a new and exciting experience. Besides, this train was bound for the inauguration of the President! With Truman in 1949 we were too young; Eisenhower in ’53 and ’57 was OK, but we hated Nixon. When I realize Eisenhower was born 131 years ago I start feeling around for my cane! Eisenhower accomplished a good deal. He, later, was characterized as a “do-nothing” president—I mean, what could be blander than his campaign slogan: “I like Ike.” Perhaps it was his calm moderation and his frequent resort to golf. Already we were mesmerized by the “vig-ah” and youthful vitality of the Kennedy clan that furthered this distortion. Times were a-changing: the peaceful and prosperous era of Eisenhower had come to an end by the election of 1960. Things were heating up in the South, in Vietnam, in Germany . . . in space!
Atlanta had hit 45-degrees the day before. Many of us, high school freshman and sophomores, had never been in serious snow conditions—we didn’t know what to expect. We turned blue in our Georgia coats and school shoes; a couple kids went hysterical and had to be led back to the shelter of the train. But I was warmed for a whole decade by the naive optimism that I carried away from that speech; it ultimately turned me to civil rights and nonviolent resistance to the Vietnam War. I loved what he said. Everybody remembers, “Ask not . . . ,” but I also remember, “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” That same euphoric optimism carried me to my second “live” inauguration, an equally cold and snowy forty-eight years later, and the beautiful words of Barak Obama, who promised to harness the very sun and the wind to America’s purpose. Oh, when will I ever learn!