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What we still miss, after 40 years

November 19, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was late November in 1963, probably the last day of class before the Thanksgiving break. I don't remember exactly because, after all, it has been 40 years.

I do remember that it was the last period of the day at John Carroll Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., where someone had decided that that afternoon's end was the perfect time for ninth-grade boys to learn algebra.

But those inclined to be distracted by thoughts of home and girlfriends were soon snapped to attention by Father John Steinman, who could holler like a drill sergeant and who didn't mind tossing a blackboard eraser at the head of any lad who seemed to be zoning out.

He could be funny when he chose to be. Sometimes he bet students he could bounce paper wads off the chalk tray and into the trash can, with some of his winnings going to the school's mission fund.

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The thing was, we never knew. Was it going to be a funny day, or a yelling day?

And so when he came into the room, and said "The president has been shot" and then proceeded to teach the lesson, we looked at each other, as much as we dared, wondering if this eccentric priest had gone off the deep end.

But after a few minutes, he couldn't continue and he told us what he knew, which wasn't much at that point. Then came the bell and we went to our lockers and then to the bus stop, where those of us too young to drive rode home on the D.C. Transit line.

As we waited, mostly in silence, Fred Syphax, a small boy who was sometimes picked on, whispered something to one of the other fellows.

"Tell them, Fred," said the boy.

Fred just walked away, embarrassed, knowing his secret wouldn't be a secret for very long.

"He said he wanted to get a plane and bomb Dallas," the boy said.

Freddy smiled, as if it had been a joke, but there were tears in his eyes.

For the next week, we watched the non-stop TV coverage and on the way back from church on Sunday, we heard the report that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot.

Other writers will no doubt have a better take on what John F. Kennedy's death meant to the nation. Kennedy had been sucked into the plan to invade Cuba; would he have used that experience to avoid the quagmire of Vietnam? It's hard to say.

What I remember about Kennedy, and what I believe we have lost since his death, is the idea that we owe something to the nation and that public service can be a noble profession.

At some point after Kennedy's death, government employees became "the bureaucracy," which was painted as part of the problem instead of a means to a solution.

And citizens were told that their country wasn't going to ask them to do anything except pay their taxes, which went from being seen as the price of citizenship to an unwarranted confiscation of one's assets.

Kennedy understood that to build a strong nation, citizens have to be asked to do more than just write a check.

During the first Gulf War, when people who remembered the scrap drives of World War II asked if that would be necessary again, they were told "no." The first George Bush didn't understand that there was a yearning to be a part of that conflict, to help out. Some good things might have been accomplished, if only he had asked.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, people lined up to donate blood, even though the Red Cross couldn't handle all that people wanted to give. So people gave money instead, which certainly helped, but which is not the same as a personal sacrifice of time and effort.

What should we be doing? After the 9/11 attacks, I talked to psychologists who said that the anxiety of not knowing what was going to happen next could be eased by helping someone else. A simple visit to a lonely neighbor would help the visitor as well, they said.

But I'm not hearing that call from the White House now, and whether or not you supported George W. Bush - and I voted for him - truthful people will have to admit that he has not united this nation. Those on his side may ascribe this to the stubborn reluctance of Democrats to admit that their man lost the last election, but where's the reaching out that would change those stubborn minds?

Anyone who has ever worked for a volunteer organization knows that sharing a task breaks down the barriers that keep us in our own little personal worlds. If the nation were united in some task all could agree on, I have no doubt it would break down the political and personal barriers that keep us from coming together as a nation.

And so instead of just laying a wreath on JFK's grave, I'd like to see President Bush ask Americans to do something positive, a task that could be shared by rich and poor alike.

Will that happen? The fact that I'm still idealistic enough to believe that it could is something I choose to believe is part of Kennedy's legacy.

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