Jul 26, 2014

Summer 1966: The President's Not Cute

Everyone in the Boomer generation and older knows where they were on November 22, 1963, when they heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

My Cousin Joe remembers a murmur going through the school, a teacher crying, and being sent home early.

I was barely three years old, so all I have are some vague, confusing memories of people being sad.

I didn't know he was dead, or that Lyndon B. Johnson was the new President.  There were so many pictures of him on tv and in books, and people talked about him so much, that I thought that he was still the President 2 1/2 years later.


All the pictures showed John F. Kennedy as handsome and athletic.  There were shirtless photos in Life magazine.  He had muscles!  And the movie PT-109 (1963) showed him rescuing a buddy from a sinking ship during World War II!  My friends and I made him a key player in our "my hero" games.

So I was thrilled one day in the summer of 1966, when we were visiting Indiana, and my Aunt Nora, my father's sister, suddenly announced "You're going to meet the President!"

Later I found out that Indiana was celebrating its Sesquicentennial, 150 years of statehood, and my grandmother's family was important, descended from pioneers.  She and some other "pioneer women" had been selected to shake hands with the President at the festival in Indianapolis.

We drove down with my Grandma, my Aunt Nora and two of my older cousins, Joey  and Eva Maria.

I remember a parade with boy scouts, some people walking around in pioneer costumes with a covered wagon, and a merry-go-round like at a carnival (but it wasn't a "carnival," forbidden for Nazarenes, it was a "festival").  But the highlight was to be the address by the President.

My cousins and Aunt Nora and I stood at the head of the crowd, very near the row of chairs where Grandma was sitting and the podium where he would speak.  I couldn't wait.  Maybe he would come out in a swimsuit, like in the photos in Life magazine.  Or at least take his shirt off -- it was a hot July day, and lots of guys in the crowd had their shirts off.

"Isn't this exciting, Boomer?" my Cousin Joey said.  He was a grown-up, 12 years old (top photo looks like him).  "Seeing the real, live President, just like on tv. Maybe he'll shake your hand, too!"

Then a band began to play "Hail to the Chief," someone announced "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States,"  and....

An old, ugly guy marched onto the stage!

I tugged at Cousin Joey's shirt.  "Where's the President?"

"Why, that's him.  Doesn't he look the same as on television?"

There had been a terrible mistake!  Where was the hunky muscleman who ripped his shirt off and dived into shark-infested waters to rescue his buddy?  

This trip had been one big lie!

Outraged by the betrayal, I tore myself away and ran headlong through the crowd.  Joey chased behind and grabbed me by the cotton candy machine, with Aunt Nora and Eva Marie following.


"What on Earth is the matter with you?" Aunt Nora asked.  "You're a big boy, too old for temper tantrums!"

"It's your fault!" I said, starting to cry.  "You said we would meet the President!"

"Who do you think is talking up there, Bub?" Joey asked.

"Not the President!"

"What makes you say that?"

"He's not cute!"

Years later, Cousin Joe said that he "knew" that I was gay at that moment.