In 1963 for some long forgotten reason I wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy. The White House replied with a letter, a picture of the President’s family, and a picture of the President. By the time I was discharged from the army (1975) I had lost track of the photos and pictures. Recently I discovered them pressed between the pages of a book that I had long ago purchased titled, “This Was The President, John F. Kennedy” by Tony Spina. It was a picture book chronicling the campaign, short Presidency, and funeral of the slain President.
At 10 years old I can’t imagine why I would write a letter to the President. At the time I wasn’t exhibiting any inclination to being what anyone would call a ‘bright’ kid. Any political interest I would develop later on where to complex for me at that age. It surprises me now that I even knew who the President was in 1963. I was a classic knucklehead. In hindsight I use to think it might have been because we were in Germany when the President gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, but in fact he would give that speech 4 months later. The only plausible explanation is that it was probably some mandatory school project.
I know that I liked the President, the idea of the President, but those feelings probably came after receiving the letter.
Where were you on the day you heard the president was assassinated?
The answer to the inevitable question/phrase:
When I received the letter from the White House we lived in Warner Kaserne in Munich, Germany. Kaserne means ‘barracks’ in its original use, but by the 60’s it was more broadly used to mean camp. In this case camp didn’t mean pup tents and latrines. These kasernes were permanent buildings, barracks, and apartments as well as military equipment and functions.
By the time the President was assassinated we had moved to a smaller kaserne near Munich. Our knew kaserne was formerly a World War I cavalry fort with a small city adjacent. Just like civilian towns grow around American bases in America they also grow up around military bases in other countries. This is a situation that goes back to the Roman Legions and before. It is a fact of military life.
This kaserne had been a military camp during World War II. After the war the little camp was divided into a converted U.S. Army base and a Museum. The building we lived in had formerly been German officers barracks. The apartment was heated with coal stoves that we had to keep going during the cold and snowy Bavarian winters. It was quiet a cultural shock for an uninspired ten year old.
We lived within a 100 yards of the Post Exchange (PX), which also served as the bus stop for the on base school. That’s were I was when someone informed us that the President had been assassinated. I remember where I was, but not much else of that day. I don’t even remember if they told us to stay home that day or we if still went to school. My brothers and I had dealt with the death of our mother a few years before and I’m not sure if I had even completely processed that event by 1963, so maybe my absorption of the news of the Kennedy assassination may have been muffled by comparison.
Another reason why I remember so little beyond where I was that day, combined with my mother’s death, might have been the ‘trauma’ of our new residence. Once we moved into our new location, like everyone else we visited and toured the part of the old German base that was converted into a museum and what I saw there left me shaking and in awe. Memories of what we saw in that museum haunted me the rest of my live. Not with nightmares and psychological episodes, but with questions that a simple ten year old ask when processing the events around them. Simple questions, but with answers that were so complex they never satisfied. Simple questions that even as an adult you find the answers, still, so dissatisfying.
Questions like; Why did my mother die? No one can adequately answer that.
In the case of that museum the simple question was ‘how could people do that to another human being? As you grow up you see that in spite of the fact that we can’t explain the why, we continually see the continuation of such abhorrent behavior and treatment towards each other. That museum, finding out the truth about that camp, what the officers who lived in the barracks we lived in did, and what the people of that little city supposedly ignored, why? In the visit to the museum that day was planted the seed that would germinate into an anguish for social justice, while unformed at that time, that seed would grow to define my outlook on humanity… and the need for vigilance.
The name of that city, the kaserne, the former fort… Dachau.