My earliest memory is running down a street hanging onto my mother's hand and my sister in her arms. Mama is in tears. The neighbor lady opens her door and we walk into the house. The mothers put down their children and collapse into each other's arms, crying, crying and crying. I just remember I didn't understand why.
How could I understand? How could anyone understand? I recognized confusion and anguish about what was going on in my world and an even bigger world. I do remember sitting down in front of a borrowed black and white television and watching a funeral where there were children just like me, except they were with their mother and I was at my house with my mother and father. I could feel the world stop even if I didn't know why. I remember the weighted nothingness of those days and the immense sadness of whatever had happened.
I doubt I had any idea about a President of the United States until that horrible day in Dallas. But because of that day and from that time forward, I was raised with a true reverence for the President. My interest in all things presidential has been a lifelong endeavor. Growing up, we stopped at every Presidential birthplace and Presidential home along our travels. I loved to read books about the presidents, their wives and families. I was a wealth of information. I might not understand the politics but I knew a lot of background information.
When I was a baby in the fall of 1961, President Kennedy came to town to visit House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was dying of cancer. Mama, and her friend, Rosemary, bundled up their two babies and went to Baylor Hospital to see the President. Mama said there were about fifty to sixty people also waiting. When Kennedy stepped out, the young mothers held up their babes in arms. Although he was only about fifteen feet away, he didn't stop to kiss any babies on that day. But my Mother was amazed at the auburn color of his hair which didn't show up in the black and white era of the time.
My first encounter with a President was maybe a glimpse. But through the years of my life, Presidential sightings have been a very real thing. I have seen all the Presidents in my lifetime except for Dwight Eisenhower #34 and Gerald Ford #38. Before, during and after. Nothing beats the thrill for a patriotic heart to hear "Ruffles and Flourishes" followed by "Hail to the Chief" and the presentation of the President. Politics aside, it is a tremendous honor to be in the same place with the leader of our nation.
Nixon was the first President I was interested in, along with my classmates. We had a mock election at school. For some reason, he was like a hero to me. I did get to see him twice and I even received a personal letter from him in response to a handmade get well card when he was hospitalized. Growing up in Texas, my family made a trip to Austin to see LBJ and Ladybird at the Johnson Library. He gave a speech and I was standing nearby. When you make eye contact with someone, you know it. It was an exciting trip.
I was only fourteen when Gerald Ford was sworn into office. Like the rest of the country, I had followed the Watergate Hearings and Nixon's resulting resignation. This would not be the last time I was disappointed by a President. I liked Ford because he reminded me of my Daddy, in a certain way. Only weeks into office, the Fords dealt openly about Betty Ford's Breast cancer in a time when personal health issues were not discussed publicly. This willingness to be forthright opened the door for womens' health.
Carter was President when I graduated from high school and into my college years. As an adult, I have come to respect him and his endeavors for world peace. I imagine he won't be teaching Sunday School much longer but I would love to be able to go to Plains and be a student for one class. Rosalyn Carter's leadership in the fight against the stigma of mental illness has been remarkable.
Ronald Regan and I "met" as we were walking in opposite directions down a hall. He was in town for a pre-candidate press conference which I was covering as a high school reporter. He nodded his head and said "hello." It was just the two of us hurrying along. He turned out to be the first President who got my vote.
Burt and I headed downtown in the fall of 1988 to see George H. W. Bush campaigning for votes. This election would be my last foray into the Republican arena.
I remember clearly the first time I met Bill Clinton. He was running for Attorney General of Arkansas. Headquarters was in an old house downtown and my handbell choir was painting offices to raise money for a choir trip. He was leaning up against the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in his hands, talking to friends. The next time was at a meeting of Young Democrats in my high school. I remember coming home and telling my mother that he was going to be President someday. At the time, I never could have imagined my words would prove true and the impact his political career would have on my life and those related to me. The thrill of victory and the crushing blow of human failings.
Barak Obama came to town the weekend before a big state election. We arrived early and were able to get a seat on the steps just feet below the microphone. No podium. Very casual. When he spoke, Obama looked about at the audience. For a few seconds, eye contact is made with an individual. For me it is not a feeling of "oh, he looked at me" but instead, a feeling of one to one conversation, a real connection.
I hoped to see Ford at the Opening of the Clinton Presidential Library but he was too ill to attend. Presidents Carter and George W. Bush were added to my list of those I've seen.
Fifty years ago today, the motorcade route was lined with people, the windows of the buildings facing the street were full of people looking out to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy. My father watched from a window as the motorcade passed the store. He had seen the President. Everyone was excited. In just minutes, their elation turned to shock and disbelief to hear that the President had been shot. Dallas would shut down at the news of his death. The nation fell into a deep mourning.
The next day my family drove back downtown and placed flowers at Dealey Plaza. On Sunday, we went to church. My mother remembers a note being passed up to our minister during the worship service. At the end of his sermon, Dr. Herbert Howard prayed for the soul of Lee Harvey Oswald.
As a girl growing up in Dallas, the assassination would often shadow my thoughts. It set a pall on the city for many, many years. Driving to my aunts and uncles we would drive the exact lanes followed by the motorcade. I would know where we were passing. Life could not be stopped. A major thoroughfare could not be closed. Coming back home on the opposite side, I would look up and see the Book Depository. I poured over the books full of photographs and words, trying to fill in the parts I did not have memory of. Later, watching news reports in the following years, over and over hoping the film would not show the President falling forward and the First Lady jumping up. I know that sounds crazy but that somehow history could be changed.
Of course, that is something everyone would wish for, history changing. My parents had not voted for Kennedy. Under the blue Texas sky, a thief in the daylight had murdered our nation's leader. The President belongs to all of us, whether we think of ourselves as Democrat, Republican, Independent or just don't care. Red state. Blue state. Purple house. It doesn't matter. We are all red, white and blue. I'm tired of all of our division. We are the worst threat to our beloved nation. We have more freedoms than any nation and yet all we seem to focus on is "you shouldn't do that" or "we won't do this."
We have seen what hate can do when homegrown ideology twists souls into inhuman shapes. When self becomes more important than the whole. Ford's Theater. Dallas. Birmingham. Memphis. It is always out there but we are the ones who feed that dark voice. Throw a floodlight of thanksgiving across the states, turn it into thanks for all that is good about this country and what it means to be able to live a life free and able. Be thankful for men (and women) willing to take on the office of the President of the United States of America. I love Texas. I love Dallas. I love the United States of America.