My father was a young lawyer in Detroit when JFK died. He hadn’t voted for him, but for Nixon, which was hard to believe if you saw his jubilation at Nixon’s impeachment. He told me why he didn’t vote for JFK, but I don’t remember. He and my mother lived a block or two from my father’s parents in an elm-shaded, brick home, their dream house. Dad’s hair was close-cropped, black against his fair skin. His eyes were deep brown, and his ready smile wide. He wore the chunky black-framed glasses of the time, thin ties, fitted pants. My mother and he had made it through two miscarriages before having me in August, 1963. On the night of JFK’s death, Dad was holding me.
It was the middle of the night. He let his tired wife sleep and took the baby to walk and rock her back to sleep. He tended to say “yes a sure, yes a sure” as he bounced. I saw him do it with my babies over thirty years later. Dad sat down to with me on his shoulder since I seemed to be asleep, and I was quiet.
Suddenly, Dad, who may have fallen asleep, gasped, panicking. He was sure I was dead. He held me out in front of him saying desperately “Breathe! Breathe”” I obliged by waking up and crying.
Besides joking around, Dad didn’t appear or even feel desperate often. Even if our sailboat was about to hit the pier, or I was popping the clutch, or a big snake appeared in the branches by his canoe, or his wife has lung cancer, or he had been told he probably had Alzheimer’s. He was calm, voice soft, unafraid and certain of a good outcome.
Until this moment I don’t think I realized that this story may be the only one I’ve ever heard in which he was scared and desperate. And he told the story not as a “where I was when JFK died” but to show how he had awakened me after trying to get me to sleep. He told it as a funny story of his little failings as a new father.
But death hits you differently when you’ve got a very young baby, at least it hit him differently, and I know it did me too. All you really want from your baby is that it live. The president is not supposed to get shot and killed, no matter if you voted for him or her or not. The young lawyer in Detroit, holding his new daughter in the den of his dream house, felt the tragedy so deeply that he was moved to overreact, to worry needlessly, even to panic. To our family, his fear tells us how devastating this assassination was.