Ask anyone where they were when the Twin Towers came down, or when they heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, or the end of WWII and they will, in all probability, tell you that the memory is as clear today as it was on the day it occurred. Of course, there are other memorable moments in each of our lives and they hold special sway with our memory banks, but there are people we knew only from afar from the media involved in their lives. A few, like JFK, and his then only living son, John, are prominent and 17 years ago is as a wink in time today. I suppose it’s similar with the untimely and unexpected deaths of James Dean and Elvis Presley.
A new documentary, “I Am JFK, Jr.”, is set for release and the filmmakers believe
they have provided a look at the young man through the eyes of those who knew him best and had the closest associations with him. It’s not the first documentary on JFK, Jr. There’s really no special reason for this film to be released 17 years afterJohn was killed in an ill-fated plane trip to attend a relative’s wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. His mother had a grand home there (since torn down by his sister, Caroline) and it has always been a favored spot for the rich and famous from those with inherited wealth as well as the nouveau riche.
Reading about the film and watching an interview on The Today Show, I was taken back all those years to an unremarkable Saturday morning in the office where I awaited a series of patients. My laptop sat in front of me and I recall that a sudden bulletin flashed on the screen with news that America’s only “prince” and his plane with his wife and sister-in-law aboard, was missing. It hadn’t landed on the island as expected and search boats, including the Navy, and planes were scouring the Atlantic coastal areas over which his plane would have had to travel through a night sky thick with fog.
No sightings of any kind. Then, a bit later, a pill bottle, a bit of luggage and, finally, the wreckage with three people still in it. Hope was gone, the wedding was postponed and a period of mourning began. Ironic that he should have died in the very way his dead mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, feared.
JACKIE KENNEDY ONASSIS
Rumor has it that she extracted a promise from him that he would never take up flying and he honored it until her death. She had known his fascination with flying from when he was very young and accompanied his father on the Presidential helicopter or Air Force One.
Oddly, I felt as though I’d lost a relative and it was a feeling I’d had before when his father has been killed. The day November 22, 1963 is as fresh today as it was then. Perhaps we did accept the Kennedy family in some special way that we hadn’t with other presidential families. Maybe some who are older than me had a similar feeling when FDR died suddenly in Warm Springs, Georgia.
The two presidents had held a special place in the hearts of Americans and were instrumental in bringing about economic and civil rights changes. However, both of them also knew how to use the media for their own purposes and JFK was a master of the new media. Certainly, the success of his efforts was quickly realized once you saw the degree of national mourning when he died.
What would JFK, Jr. have accomplished had he lived? Many were eagerly promoting him for political office and that might have been the path he choose. After all, he did become a publisher and that had been his late father’s intended career move after he left office. How many children would he have had and how would the Kennedy legacy have been affected by their lives?
We know that just prior to that ill-fated plane trip he and his wife were having a home built north of New York City. Perhaps he and his wife wished to escape the constant buzz of photographers and reporters surrounding their New York City loft apartment. It’s said the home would have had ample bedrooms for children, which Kennedy clearly stated he wanted soon.
Now, all we have are the memories of those who knew him and how flawed might those be or how carefully crafted is the information the film will contain? We’ll never know that, either. What we do know is that we lost a fine young man of promise whose sister, Caroline, carries the torch lit by her father as she attends to her duties as Ambassador to Japan.
The one memory all of us will find burned irrevocably into our minds is that of a
Dan Farrell’s photo of JFK, Jr. saluting
little three-year-old boy standing and saluting as his father’s coffin passed by, not knowing quite why he was doing it or where his father was at that moment. A final touch of irony is that the photographer who took that iconic photo shares the same family name with me although, as far as I know, he isn’t a relative.