JFK, 50 Years Later: This One's a Southern Tale

Renae Brabham


All the channels have been recounting the terrible last hours and days of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago. I asked Don if he remembered where he was when JFK died.


He looked at me like I was nuts. Of course he did.


Although I wasn't quite five years old, I remember watching it unfold on a black-and-white TV in a Chicago brownstone. My mother and a neighbor were crying. I really didn't know what was going on, but I cried, too. I felt much better later that night—after all, Little Joe on Bonanza didn't seem to be too upset about it.


I am sure everyone can recite JFK's "Ask not ...." speech phrase. But even as he had many brilliant speeches, I have always been more moved that his actions were a reflection of his words.


For example, his steadfast leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had read historical accounts of the 14-day nail biter, but Don's emphatic verbatim recall of every single documentary he has watched on the subject have "learned" me the most.


The crisis was a nuclear dare—a standoff with Russia that could have obliterated the entire eastern seaboard. Kennedy, although missiles in place and targets in sight, remained cool-headed even when an American U-2 plane was shot down. The world breathed a huge sigh of relief when negotiations between America and Moscow were reached.


My friend—a Navy vet—and I were messaging back and forth late the other evening, recounting our memories of JFK, his death and legacy. She told me, "Long ago and far away, when I was a senior in high school in Bergenfield, NJ—just across the Hudson River from Manhattan—the Cuban missile crisis was happening. So many of my classmates were scared that the missiles would hit New York City, and possibly us as well. I thought the world of John Kennedy, and had complete faith in him—he was one of those presidents that you could say the man made the presidency, rather than the presidency made the man."


In response I tapped out my own story from just last summer:


"I went to Patriot's Point in Charleston to do a story on the USS Yorktown. For whatever reasons, the story fell through...(or did it?).


As I normally do when rejected (before toddy time), I searched for food. I stepped into line at the snack bar. They have meals on the Yorktown, but I needed a quick fix. An old guy stood behind me in prideful vet regalia.


I turned and told him that they served  meals in the mess hall on the Yorktown. He smiled and told that he had seen enough mess halls to last a lifetime.


We got to talking about my failed story somehow and he said,  "I have one for you. Short and sweet. I was stationed on (??????) naval ship near the Bay of Pigs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a very stressful time for us, and we were grateful to leave. When it was over, we high-tailed it back to the U.S. and ported at (??????)”


Now I was juggling a hotdog, guzzler, notebook, and pocketbook as he eased up to the window to place his order. Ketchup was threatening to drip from the end of my steamed frank, but he had my attention so I leaned on the snack bar and waited for him to continue.


"Well, we had leave and my buddies got drunk in Washington, DC and didn't want to go with me early on a Sunday morning to find a church. So, I went by myself. I climbed the steps of an Irish Catholic church. No one was there, it was very early, but the doors were open and candles gleaming. When I walked in, a tall gentleman got up off his knees slowly and turned to leave. I walked up the (?????) altar to light a candle. As we started to pass each other,  he stuck out his hand. It was JFK! He thanked me for all I've done for my country and I thanked him for all that he does and we parted. I told my buddies when I got back to the ship when they finally woke up—damn drunks never believed it."


The vet and I talked for a few minutes more while I woofed down the dog. Then I thanked him for the story and his service and we went our separate ways.


So, I clicked send and the message went to NC to my friend. I piddled around the house the next morning, kicking myself for not writing down the facts — Church? Ship? Port name? when I heard the beep that a message came in on my computer.


My friend responded, "Never trust an old sailor."