June 13, 1960. I’m eight years old and it’s around 10 p.m. when I wake up and look outside my bedroom window.
Lights blaze in every house. Strange …
I lived where Catholic Dorchester met Jewish Mattapan — "Early to bed, early to rise" was the 11th commandment.
Downstairs, I could hear the TV. Also strange — my mom and grandmother watched “Edge of Night” afternoons while they ironed, but as a rule, the set was off, except for the Saturday night movie and Disney on Sunday.
Something was up. I walked downstairs, cautiously. Getting out of bed was not encouraged. My parents and grandmother so focused on the 21-inch, black-and-white screen that they didn’t notice me until I asked what was going on.
Somebody, probably my dad, explained that the Democratic Party was nominating Sen. John F. Kennedy, from our state, Massachusetts, to run for President. Clearly it was a teachable moment, although my guess is I wasn’t quite sure what exactly it was that I was learning. But instinct trumped ignorance.
“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier, the frontier of the 1960s," Kennedy said in his acceptance speech.
Frontier was a concept I could grasp. It spoke of cowboys and westerns, like "Rawhide" or "The Rifleman." Cowboys were icons in a world divided between good guys and bad guys.
Watch JFK's 1960 nomination speech:
Although I may not have known the word celebrity, I knew the Kennedys were famous.
In my house, the Kennedys were imagined as a step above our fanciest relatives, but a notch below John Wayne and Grace Kelly — two below the pope.
My mother had vivid memories of Ambassador Joe Kennedy’s opposition to World War II.
My dad, an ex-Marine from Brighton, had a sketchy opinion of Navy men, but he excepted JFK. His factory mate, Bucky Harris, was one of the crew Jack rescued after PT 109 sank.
And my grandmother, who came to Boston from County Claire via the Lowell textile mills, well, she once met matriarch Rose at a special mass.
All of this infused the idea of the Kennedys — especially Jack — with a sense of intimacy.
Tribalism was probably closer to the mark.
By the time JFK was elected, I was nine. At St. Gregory’s Grammar School, Sister Ann Bridget prepared my classmates and me well. Kennedy’s election was a focal point, something to teach toward — no talk of oppression, but rather, the suggestion of progression, from John Carroll to Al Smith to JFK — the historical inevitability of a Catholic president.
“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom," Kennedy said in his inauguration speech.
Memory is strange. The act of remembering seems concrete. Push too hard, or too fast, however, and things dissolve. Still, it’s surprising what the psyche yields, how time’s passage can concentrate.
Today I can articulate what as a boy I could only feel, only intuit with that puppy-like sense common to children. For boys like me and families like mine, the freedom Kennedy invoked encompassed the right to aspire, to seek a better world, for yourself and for others.
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our ideals, let us go forth to lead the land we love," Kennedy said at his inauguration. "Asking his blessing and his help, but knowing here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
Kennedy’s New Frontier was rugged, but it was not selfish. Community was its core — the sense that we were all in this life together. It seems such a long time ago. Or so it seems today.
Watch JFK's inauguration speech: