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Moments frozen in time

A quick handshake foretold future for high school teenager

If you are of my generation, if you’ve seen 70 in the rearview mirror, you don’t even pay attention to the question being asked this week because the answer is so simple: Yes, of course, you know exactly, precisely, where you were.

I was in a coffee shop at the midday hour on that November day a half century ago; second booth, across from the TV, when the crudely fashioned “Bulletin” message flashed on the screen and Walter Cronkite, coatless and in black-and-white, told us that shots had been fired in Dallas.

But no need to talk any more about that day; enough – more than enough – has been said about that in recent days.

Instead, I prefer a day in the autumn, mid-September of 1960.

In the autumn of that year, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was crisscrossing every square mile of the nation in search of every last vote – as was his opponent, Richard M. Nixon – and he – Kennedy – came to my town and delivered the campaign speech that is preserved on page 318 of the 1,440-page book of his speeches from that campaign. The book also tells me it was Sept. 22 of that year.

He came to the band shell smack in the middle of the downtown square; we had been dismissed from high school to attend the event and we were there, a bunch of Irish boys come to see one of our own: Cahill and Collins and Fitzgerald and myself and we had lined up right against the snow fence that had been hurriedly strung to keep the crowd at bay. Right there in the front row ... and we saw him coming and it was Fitzgerald, Tom Fitzgerald, who reached out and grabbed the candidate, drew him to the fence line, shook his hand and passed him along. And I can conjure that image today as surely as if it were an 8-by-10 suitable for framing:

He, Sen. John F. Kennedy, was right there. He glanced ahead and that profile that has become an American icon was right there, topped by the shock of unruly hair, the nervous jerk of the hand brushing it from his forehead, the buttoning of the dark blue suit coat. The tanned skin and the blue shirt.

In those days, people who expected to be on TV that night wore blue shirts because in those days we had black-and-white TV and the blue photographed as starched white on those crude cameras.

The man wore the blue shirt and that fine suit and the fine tan and we passed him along down the line, and his bodyguards didn’t mind because candidates could do that back then ... back before Dallas.

I had a camera, a cheap little Brownie Holiday Starflash, and I snapped one picture ... and then he was gone ... on down the line ... and on to the motorcade ... and on to another town, to Sioux City and Sioux Falls and Grand Forks and Billings that day and eventually to the White House and then, finally, to that awful day in Dallas.

“I want you to join with us,” he told us that afternoon. “I don’t preach the doctrine of ease. I preach the doctrine of vigor and vitality and energy and force. This is a great country and we are going to make it greater. I ask your help in this effort.”

I know that’s what he said all those years ago because I looked it up right there on page 318.

But for one slender slice of time, one fleeting instant, that bright young man who carried the torch for a new generation of Americans, that fellow who would challenge us to ask what we could do for our country, that brash young senator who told us we would go to the moon in our decade ... for one instant he was mine. The eyes met, the hands extended for a grasp and a handshake and he moved on, on to those places like Germany where he told them “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and finally on to the speech that he never voiced, the speech to be delivered in Texas on the night of Nov. 22, 1963, the speech in which he was to tell us that “neither conformity nor complacency will do” as he looked ahead to the late 1960s and on to the distant beyond.

That night, in the rain and the tears of Washington, a couple of buddies of the dead Irishman – the assassinated president of the United States – were consoling each other. The columnist Mary McGrory and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the bright young men of Camelot, were trying to understand.

“We’ll never laugh again,” she said, to which Moynihan rejoined: “Oh heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again, but we shall never be young again.”

And so it is.

Ed Breen retired as assistant managing editor of The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.