JFK’s death stunned the whole world
I am writing this column on Nov. 22, 2003.
Incredibly, President John F. Kennedy was killed exactly 40 years ago today. Even those of us who weren’t around then must be fully aware of the importance of this date. (Of late, it’s been on the lips of every radio commentator, and on the pen of every newspaper columnist.) Kennedy’s death marked a turning point in the life of our nation.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said Kennedy. And those words inspired thousands of idealists, young and old, to try to do something for our country and for others around the world.
When Kennedy started the Peace Corps on March 31, 1961, our idealism took shape, with a place to hang its hat. And it wasn’t long before I as a young, impetuous idealist joined up!
I applied, stating I’d like a French-speaking country and could teach English language or literature. However, via the mysterious Peace Corps lottery system, I was invited to teach English as a foreign language in Turkey! I said “yes,” then rushed to our family’s world almanac to pinpoint exactly where Turkey was! I hadn’t a clue what language they spoke either!
This unabashed naivete was cured by an intensive period of training in Washington, D.C. At Georgetown University in the summer of 1963, we were immersed in the language (Turkish), geography, politics, history and culture of Turkey. What a fascinating summer it was, culminating in our attendance at the “March on Washington” on Aug. 28, 1963.
September brought an interminable flight to Ankara – Turkey’s capital – and our shocking first breakfast of olives and goat cheese. Soon we were delivered to our rural towns, mine being on the Black Sea. My fellow volunteer, Gene Paslov, was assigned to a little fig-producing hamlet on the Aegean Sean, which put us at a great distance from each other.
As we began to date, we met in Istanbul – a full 12-hour round trip for each of us on buses we called “God-save-us-specials.” (Later, we were engaged at the famed “covered bazaar” in Istanbul, to be married in that town the following June.)
In October of 1963 we were in full swing, teaching the English language to middle and high school students in our little towns. We loved to tell our students how President Kennedy had sent us and how he wanted them to learn more and have fulfilling lives.
When the bombshell of Kennedy’s assassination hit, the whole country went into mourning. Kennedy had been a beacon of hope for them, offering friendship and a diplomatic helping hand in their conflict with the Greeks on the Island of Cyprus. They, in fact, idolized him.
Word of Kennedy’s death came to the Turkish prime minister as he attended a concert. After an aide passed him the information, he stood up, stopped the performance and announced the news to the audience. A stunned crowd followed him out of the concert hall. Turkish flags remained at half-staff for a week as grieving Turks softly repeated, “Kennedy olmus, Kennedy olmus.” (“Kennedy has died.”)
Many of us learned of Kennedy’s death the next day when we entered our schools to teach Saturday morning classes. Our fellow teachers simply stood about quietly, until one of them approached us in the gesture of holding and shooting a gun. That is when our initial perception, that the president’s father had died, changed. We then fully understood that our president, the champion of our idealism, had been lost. The poignancy of that moment will linger always.
Across party lines, Kennedy’s assassination remains a deeply personal experience for us who lived through it. Amidst the heartbreak lies the lost promise of what he could still have done. Losing our youthful president, our nation turned that day from its youthful innocence to a more somber future.
Susan Paslov is a retired attorney who teaches English as a Second Language. She is married with three children and three grandchildren.