November 13, 2013
This November marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Jack Kennedy. Some people think of the president as iconic. My own opinion is that we’ll never know if he would have been a great leader. Because, of course, he died before his time.
Charlie (her brothers and sisters called her Charlie, even though her name was Charlene) was definitely from the icon crowd. Her husband forbade her to mention Kennedy’s name in their house. Her minister, Pastor Evers, ranted against Kennedy from the pulpit—“the Papists are coming and they will control us.” But Charlie, away from her husband, happily, proudly, remarked that her vote would cancel that of her fuming, brooding husband.
The couple and their two children lived in Belleville, Illinois, now a suburb across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, then a small town. Imagine Charlie’s happiness when she learned that Senator Kennedy would be campaigning in Belleville. She was shrewd enough not to say a word at home. She must have planned in secret, for even her children did not know they were about to have an adventure.
President Kennedy came to Belleville in late summer. Perhaps it was September—it was still warm out. On the day of the parade through the Belleville town square, Charlie waited until her husband, a US Post Office mail sorter, went to work in St. Louis. Then she dressed herself like a princess going to the ball. She and the kids piled into the family car and drove downtown.
They were in place early, front row, on the street. She told the kids that Senator Kennedy was coming. Her son, twelve years old, could have cared less. He thought his mom was eccentric at best. She had multiple sclerosis, and her movements were unpredictable. Sometimes she would stumble around like a drunken woman. The kids saw the stares of others, when they were grocery shopping at Wessel’s Supermarket, and they suspected what people were thinking: Look at the drunk lady. And the children were embarrassed. And here was yet another embarrassment, a grown woman standing in the town square, acting like a school girl with a crush on a teacher. She was stoked.
An hour or more passed. The crowd got larger and larger, until three and four rows of people gathered on the street and sidewalks, most of them dressed in their Sunday finest. Suddenly, a wild cheer rang out all around the square. JACK WAS IN TOWN! Charlie’s son was reminded of a home crowd cheering at a St. Louis Cardinals game.
And suddenly, Camelot appeared, a line of police cars slowly leading the way, sirens blaring and lights flashing, the crowd roaring in a friendly, Midwestern kind of way. Charlie jumped up and down the way teenage girls would jump and scream for the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Even her son began to get excited; he cheered in spite of himself. He got caught up in the chant: “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack!”
Two open, stretch limousines slowly drove into the square. The first car carried dignitaries, probably politicians and their wives. Then Jack appeared. Charlie’s son was amazed. The senator’s skin was bronzed and his body was thin and straight. He kept brushing back his famous mop of hair. Charlie began to scream.
The limos made their way around the square, finally passing Charlie and the kids. Senator Kennedy was holding on to a front seat with his left hand and leaning out and touching people’s hands. Charlie, who was squeezing the kids’ hands tightly, suddenly let go. She lunged forward, extended her right hand and . . . Jack’s hand brushed against hers. Jack and Charlie had touched.
The limos drove on. Charlie took hold of the anointed fingertips with her other hand and shook her arm as though she had had an electric shock. She held up the fingers for others to see. “He touched me. He touched me!” Oh, the glory of that moment. The son wondered that night if Charlie would ever wash her hand again.
As they drove home, she swore the kids to secrecy. Her husband never knew what had happened—until his son, by then an adult, told him the story years later. By then, his father was the ex-husband of Charlie and newly married to another woman.
Jack never knew he had touched Charlie’s hand, one hand of thousands of hands—millions of hands by the time he was elected president. It seemed to the son that Charlie was sure Jack loved her. Certainly, she loved Jack. Despite the railings of Protestant preachers and Republicans, Jack won. And Charlie carried him in her heart, and it was a love affair of the heart, safe and unseen, but her son and daughter knew it.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963. Charlie took to her bed. Her multiple sclerosis only exacerbated her woes. The family had moved to Alton, Illinois by then, and the kids were in high school. Charlie’s son was sitting in Miss Weigel’s class when the news came. A boy entered the classroom and handed her a note, and she broke down and cried. We stared at her—who sees their teacher cry?
The aftermath of the tragedy, the long, painful few days of ceremony and mourning, didn’t resonate with kids as much as it did the adults. Charlie’s son played Indian ball with his friends in North Side Park. Even his father kept silent. One thing is certain: the light went out in Charlie. The marriage was about to break up, and she told anyone who would listen she was going to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
If only. Charlie never sat in a wheelchair. In her mind she was living in the future. In reality, the present snuffed out her flame, even as Jack’s “eternal” flame burned at Arlington National Cemetery. And there was the final, ironic connection between that sweet pair, Jack and Charlie.
Charlene Jones Baldwin, my mother, was murdered on April 15, 1972. She died before her time.