I need not ever remind myself of my age. I am as old as the anniversary of JFK’s death. Over twenty years ago I realized that my very first cognizant memory was of my mother weeping while his funeral was broadcast on our television, halfway round the world. I was nearly ten months old and the child of US expats living in Melbourne, Australia.

Melbourne was an interesting place to be during the heat of the Cold War. Film buffs may recall that Melbourne was the setting of On the Beach, first a superb novel by Nevil Shute, and then an excellent movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner that premiered in 1959.

A nuclear war has broken out but a stroke of “luck” finds one of our nuclear subs in Melbourne when it happens.  Peck plays the commander of the  sub, and Gardner his love interest.  Cut off from communication with the rest of the world the survivors cling to the hope that more have survived, that the radiation cloud will not reach them and that somehow a return to their former lives will be possible.

There is no happy ending.  It’s a grim tale and says much about how scared people in the late fifties and early sixties were, in that profound way that art can sometimes do, by revealing our greatest fears in a manner that makes it impossible not to acknowledge them.  On the Beach was a reflection of our fears, and the very real threat of global nuclear annihilation that lurked like the ultimate grim reaper, just beyond our vision, in the shadows of our collective conscience.  The message of On The Beach is clear, the end is unequivocal; nuclear war must be avoided at all costs.


A few years later during the month of October in 1962, the premise of On the Beach proves all too real when the Soviet Union parks a selection of nuclear weapons at our doorstep, well within range of wiping our country off the proverbial map.  We can never know for certain just how close the world came to nuclear destruction during those tense days, but most experts agree that the Cuban Missile Crisis was closer than we had ever been before, or since.  By choosing a quarantine/blockade rather than a military invasion of Cuba Kennedy may have saved the lives of untold millions.

“Three decades later a Soviet military spokesman would reveal that tactical nuclear weapons, nine Luna missiles and six mobile launchers with a range of thirty miles and the explosive power of half the Hiroshima bomb, had been available for use at the discretion of Soviet field commanders in the event of an American invasion.” source:  jfk library

The sound of my mother weeping, deep from the gut weeping, and the black and white images on our television were seared into my memory. Perhaps I was toddling or propping myself up in a playpen, but the images of that faraway funeral and the sound of my mother’s sorrow are so vivid to me, even now.  For many years I had assumed these memories must be of RFK’s assassination and funeral until I was in college and did the math, and I realized that this was not possible.  While home for winter break I  found some photos of our living room and television in Australia.  It was then that I recognized where that memory had arisen, that somehow I had remembered this as a baby, just ten months old.

Each November I think about that awful day and have always wondered how different our country, and indeed the world might have been if it had never happened.

Leaders had been assassinated before and there had been awful consequences (Ferdinand – WWI),  but not like this, a brutal bloody murder for all the world to see, in real time, as it happened.  Presidents had been assasinated in the past (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), but none in the modern age of radio and television.  Where before news might take weeks to arrive, it now took minutes, and for the first time in history, the ultimate media juggernaut, television, chronicled every moment; binding us all with the sound of Cronkites voice, and the image of a stoic young widow striding purposefully down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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A trick of fate saw to it that an ordinary citizen, John Zapruder, just happened to be using his new movie camera, and just happened to be there at the very spot where the assassination took place, AND managed to take pretty darn good footage of the whole gruesome event. What were the chances of that???? Television had helped elect him and it martyred him too.

The funeral for this young and handsome president with his beautiful grieving bride and precious young children was transmitted over the entire world. The pageantry and deliberate ceremony  soothed the wounds of a nation. It did not cure the pain but it managed it, and helped to funnel the grief to a deeper place. The world gazed on us and wept for us, and we are left to forever wonder why, and what if.

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