BITS and Pieces # 40

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November 22, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 40

Greetings from Luquillo,

Today marks fifty years since the shock and sadness engendered by President John F. Kennedy’s untimely and senseless assassination in Dallas — I wrote the following essay shortly after President Kennedy’s younger brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy passed away in August of 2009, and later still, included it in my small book of memories ‘Snapshots From The Road’ . published in 2011…

Here it is once again, for your scrutiny and evaluation…

REMEMBERING JFK

I ordered a copy of “True Compass” even before it was published. As soon as the book arrived I began to read it, but then life’s necessities intervened and it languished in the book basket beside my chair until the sadness engendered by Ted Kennedy’s death and the subsequent public celebration of his life and work encouraged me to pick it up again…

As I came to the part where Kennedy describes how and where he first learned of his brother’s death, old memories flooded back…

 Like most of my generation, a recollection of where I was and what I was doing when John Kennedy was taken from us so many years ago readily comes to mind.

 I was living in Hawaii in 1963, working as an engineer with the System Development Corporation, a RAND Corporation spin-off. I had spent most of November at Naha Air Base on the island of Okinawa managing a small project for the Air Force. Midway through the assignment I was stricken with amoebic dysentery which incapacitated me for almost a week. Confined to my room in the visiting officer’s quarters, I hadn’t eaten solid food for days as I waited for the siege to subside. Luckily, I prevailed upon an Air Force flight surgeon to prescribe Paregoric (tincture of opium) to calm my ailing stomach…

I awoke a few hours before dawn on the morning of November 23rd (November 22nd in the states) – the cramps had finally abated – I was weak and ravenously hungry…

I showered, threw-on some clothes and stumbled unsteadily to the VOQ office to ask about my chances of getting fed at that early hour.  The usually ebullient Okinawan night manager was slumped dejectedly in his chair behind the counter, his attention riveted on the tiny transistor radio in his hand. “Kennedy-san is gone!” he gasped. “Gone where?” I asked.  “Dead, shot, killed!” he replied. Not wanting to believe what I’d just heard, I ran across the street to the officer’s club to see if anyone there knew anything. The officer’s mess was closed, but I could hear sounds coming from the bar in the basement.  Trotting down the stairs, I discovered a group of off-duty airmen huddled before a television on the back bar, peering at the flickering black and white picture – an Armed Forces Television Network feed from Dallas – and suddenly, there was Walter Cronkite verifying the horrific news that the president was dead…

As I recall the scene, with the exception of a low audio rumble from the television speaker, the room was as quiet as an empty church – the assembled pilots and navigators were speechless – faces registering shock and disbelief – unwilling to comprehend the unfolding tragedy. The inevitable operational implications would sink-in soon enough – for the moment these young airmen were overwhelmed by the loss of an admired leader who was sympathetic to their brotherhood…

The club’s kitchen was closed, so I trudged back upstairs and called for a taxi to take me to the nearby town of Naha where I hoped to find an eatery open at this hour…

Naha city had the look and feel of a rapidly expanding rural village in 1963 – a cramped collection of thatch-roofed buildings interspersed with hastily constructed concrete structures and tiny wood frame storefronts. I paid-off the taxi, searched for a few blocks and finally found a dimly lit noodle shop that appeared to be open. As I pushed aside the entrance curtain, I smelled fish cooking over a charcoal fire. A wooden counter and a few mismatched stools occupied the rear wall. Tables and chairs were scattered helter-skelter around the small space between the counter and the entrance – wooden planks formed rough benches along the side walls… 

Every stool, table and bench seat was occupied by laborers, women and even small children. All were keenly watching local Japanese news coverage of the assassination on the tiny flickering screen of a battered portable television on a shelf behind the counter. Room was made for me at the counter as the shop owner, a swarthy, middle aged Asian wearing laborer’s clothes like his male customers, approached. After taking my order, he reached beneath the counter and retrieved a bottle of ‘Old Suntory’ Japanese whiskey, placing it on the counter between us along with two somewhat dusty glasses. Pausing briefly to wipe them clean, he filled each with whiskey. Handing one to me and taking the other for himself, he raised his glass in a toast, brusquely declaring “Kennedy-san”.  I raised mine, and replied “Kennedy-san, arigato gozaimasu” and we both drained our glasses. As he moved to pour us each another, I covered mine with my hand, signaling that I wished to eat before I drank again…

When I had finished eating he poured us another whiskey and proposed another “Kennedy-san” toast – although our new comradeship was certainly abetted by mutual whiskey consumption it was sealed by the bond of our shared adversity…

Later that morning as each family group began to leave; they paused and bowed in my direction. A representative from each group came close, gently gripped my shoulder and whispered “Kennedy-san. Gomenasai.”  I felt as if we were grieving over the loss of an honored family member – which, in a global sense, I suppose we were.

As I got up to leave, reaching in my shirt pocket for money to pay my bill, my new proprietor friend darted around the counter and to my astonishment enfolded me in a bear hug (a very non-Asian gesture), declaring in halting but eloquent English that he was “honored” to provide my food and drink without charge, considering “our shared loss”, or words to that effect…

While I walked the two short miles back to the air base, I pondered the lessons I had learned that morning in a crowded Asian noodle shop –  I had confronted a surprising reality – John Kennedy’s  personal appeal, perceived intellect and bold statesmanship represented a genuine legitimacy to people in a distant land  with a dissimilar culture and language .  These laborers and their families living in a modest village in the Ryukyu Islands respected and admired this young and vibrant American leader. His photograph decorated the walls of many of their homes and businesses – I later learned that a local school teacher had translated his famous inaugural quote which begins “Ask not what your country can do for you…” into the local dialect, and encouraged her students to memorize it…

Although I didn’t quite know what to make of it, I accepted the undeniable evidence of John Kennedy’s international appeal without question back then. Like so many others at the time, I subscribed wholeheartedly to the intriguing psycho-political phenomenon of his charm and cheerful statesmanship – I still do after all these years.

Until quite recently, our nation and the world had seen nothing that would compare to John Kennedy’s matchless political and personal appeal. Our new president demonstrates a compelling combination of  charisma and communication skills – he appears intellectually competent, if somewhat unorthodox in the way that he manages his fledgling administration – he seems to have reignited the hopes of many western and some eastern and middle-eastern nations – slowly realigning their views about America and Americans.  However, I believe that Mr. Obama would benefit greatly from a careful appraisal of those chapters in “True Compass” in which Ted Kennedy provides an invaluable, close-up assessment of the politics and statecraft of his brother’s brief presidency – I suspect Mr. Obama would also profit by closely examining archival materials at the Kennedy library that detail John Kennedy’s dismissal of the reactionary advice given by  CIA and  Pentagon war hawks and his subsequent tough and intellectually pragmatic decision to instead blockade Cuba during the 1961 missile crisis, ending “the most dangerous 13 days in history.” – such research might  prove extremely useful to Mr. Obama as a  “judgment template” to shore-up his resolve during these troubled times.

© 2009 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

 

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One thought on “BITS and Pieces # 40

  1. mkhulum says:

    I remember 1963 too. Your experience reminded of Nuyegne Yan Man and his proud display of President Nixon’s photo declaring him, “Nisson, number one G.I.”

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