It was just another school day for me — November 22, 1963. I was hungry, and as our assigned time rolled around I made my way to the lunchroom. I was a sophomore at Hewitt-Trussville High School — the old one with the beautiful columns and park-like “malls” where the kids liked to sit and study and socialize. I loved that old school. A tornado eventually wiped out the scenic malls. The old venerable trees just history.
But let’s get back to that historic day in 1963. Those who remember it are now at retirement age. I was sitting quietly that day. Not many around that I knew well. Then someone let out a yell and excited voices were raised. Word was traveling like wildfire and suddenly the intercom came to life, breaking in over the pandemonium. Solemnly the announcement was made. President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
It was not a good year for the Kennedys around Birmingham, Alabama. 1963 was the year of the bad race riots where Birmingham police went far and beyond their duty — fire hoses, clubs, guns, dogs — to the eternal shame of those who were born and raised in the greater Birmingham area. So some of the kids were jubilant. I was confused. This was the President fighting for his life. What was happening?
When I got off the bus that afternoon, I made my way slowly to the house. Mama’s eyes were red and swollen. She loved the Kennedys and had a picture of John F. on the wall. The day of the televised funeral, mama and I watched it all. I will never forget it. The black, flag-draped hearse, the horse with the empty saddle, little John’s salute, the First Lady in reserved but tasteful black. I always thought of Jacqueline Kennedy that day as a soldier might look when all hell is rioting around him. Strong. But also like a mother. Vulnerable. To me, that day, she looked as if she were our Commander-in-Chief, standing firm, showing the nation we would survive. We would go on.
As mama and I wept till our eyes were swollen, and the lump in my throat refused to quit choking me, even at that young age I knew. We lost something precious that day. Something had vanished from the Greatest Nation on Earth. And it wasn’t just our President. Gone were the “salad days” of America. Yes. We still had youth, and there would still be wide-eyed eagerness and enthusiasm. But it would never be the same.
With maturity I realized that we, as a people, as a nation, had become more jaded. More sophisticated. Less homelike. Less moral, Godly, and wise. The media mourned the passing of Camelot. And I think they were right. Nobody after seemed to have quite the vision that had shone for us before. President Reagan was a gentleman and a patriot, but his age was not in his favor. President Carter was honest and good, but lacked political experience, trusting the wrong voices. But now, so many of our leaders, from mayors, to governors, to senators and congressmen, have since descended into blatant, and remorseless scandal; into self-interest rather than national interest.
I haven’t heard the phrase “public trust” in a long time. These past few years have shown us it has been trampled in the dust, along with honor and integrity. I looked up the phrase. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia.
Public trust is a concept that relates back to the origins of democratic government and its seminal idea that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.
No wonder the concept has been relegated to the arcane. No. I’m not so naive as to think there was no dishonesty, graft, greed, and all those traits that politics is heir to, before the declining days of the 20th century. But it wasn’t rampant. It wasn’t entirely in-your-face. People did, at one time, know the concept of shame. Our nation, for the most part, is no longer ruled by noble statesmen, but by white trash (no matter what their actual color). Our nation, so many many years after the death of President Kennedy, has exchanged the golden turrets and towers of Camelot, for the image of a trashy trailer park. And though we still have brave young men and women putting everything on the line “in the trenches”, for their country — I see no political knight in shining armor ready to ride up The Capitol steps and lead us back to glory. And I grieve.