Friday, November 22, 2013

Birth of a Do-Gooder

Nov. 22nd marks a tragedy in America: the 50th "anniversary" of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  I was five years old when he died.  I still clearly remember playing outside and asking Mom if Mr. Kennedy was going to be okay.  As documented in my baby book, I was quite the fan.  One notation stated that when Kennedy appeared on t.v. , I announced, "There's the President, now on with the show."  His death was probably the first time I cried over someone I didn't know.  Ironically, shocking as it was to witness on t.v., I did not cry when Jack Ruby assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transported  to another jail.

Kennedy was well known for, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country".  And with that statement, the man from Massachusetts planted a seed in a little southern girl's mind.  Sure, he had his personal problems, but little kid me subconsciously latched onto the power of public service.

We would meet again at a crucial moment, Mr. Kennedy and I.  As a twelve year old, I was part of a group of girls who won a trip to Washington, D.C. over a Thanksgiving weekend. We were part of the "Y-Teens", a group for strengthening "girl power" locally known as the YWCA.  It was the female counterpart to the YMCA, which we thought of as the gym where boys played basketball.  Several years ago I chronicled that trip in a 2 part poem which began: 
Five little girls.
Black and white.
Traveled in a van
with the Undertaker's wife.
Destination: Washington, D.C.

Yes,  our driver was the wife of a local undertaker who'd taken girls on this trip before.  Yet this was at a time when integration was in it's infancy.  Sending a racially mixed group out-of-town with a black woman was a test of our parents' intestinal fortitude.  As kids, we were caught up in the adventure of it all.  Our biggest "shock" was learning that our accommodations would be in a convent of Nuns. 

We toured the usual sites, with the exception of the White House because there wasn't enough time.  And yet, it would be an encounter with Mr. Kennedy which firmly planted my feet on the path to public service.  
Journeyed for fun.
Learned awkward lessons
courtesy of Arlington Cemetery,
the Unknown Soldier and
the work of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Arlington Cemetery.
Eerily quiet.  Creepily correct.
A mathematician's symmetrical dream.
Precise angles wherever you looked.
Death done to perfection.

We watched in hushed awe at the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Funny, I still remember actually wondering who he was, what he was like and what had happened to him.  Afterwards we walked over to the eternal flame at Kennedy's grave.  It was there that all the "stuff"  I had witnessed on t.v. became real.  I was standing at the grave of someone I didn't know, but admired.  And it overwhelmed me.

Four giggling girls

Raced for the van.

One stood with a lump in her throat

that felt as eternal

as the flame at her feet.

Quietly a soldier approached.

Silently laid a hand on the little girl’s shoulder

and stood reverently with her for one brief moment.

Funny…his touch

reached all the way to my heart.

That night we were on our way back from the Chinese restaurant when the answer to, "What would you like for dessert?" was an emphatic, "Ice cream!"  Yep, in November.  So we stopped at a hotel with a restaurant and went in for dessert. Some of you will get a kick out of the fact our mischievous waiter sent us into the bar.  When the bartender turned around and found five little girls on bar stools requesting ice cream, he almost had a heart attack as his buddy stood in the doorway laughing.  Rushed to a proper table, we discussed our day while waiting.  The room was virtually empty, with just a single couple nearby.
Seated next to the romantic couple,

Five little girls turned to look.

He was dashing in Marine dress blues.

She was picture book pretty.

Four little girls diverted their eyes uneasily and looked away.

Ah yes, even then I was Miss Curiosity.  Politely of course, but always wondering, "Why?"  I'll let the rest of the poem tell the tail.

The fifth little girl was spellbound.

Watching the Marine look the woman in the eye,

the little girl’s heart skipped a beat

right along with the pretty woman’s

as he took her hand and smiled.

Although she couldn’t hear the words,

the girl somehow understood the dance,

interpreted by the woman’s face.

He spoke, then she spoke.

Their laughter intertwined until you couldn’t tell them apart.

The little girl wanted to scoot closer.

To hear what the handsome man said

that made the woman look so fascinated,

and shy and moved and happy

all at once.

Four little girls

No longer giggling.

Hissing at the fifth

that it was impolite to stare

at a man in a wheelchair.

The fifth girl frowned.

Confused by what they said.

Staring at each girl until,

one by one, they glanced at the man,

then diverted their eyes.

Very carefully, not wanting to cause a scene

the fifth girl politely checked

and was amazed to discover that

the Knight in Shining Armor

had ridden in on his own set of wheels.

Oddly enough, it didn’t matter.

For one thought kept returning to the little girl.

One day when I grow up

I want a man to look at me

the way he looks at her.

Five giggling girls.

4 left laughing.

One left changed.

She never saw his chair.

She only saw the love in his eyes.

My Unknown Solider.

One who survived the war.

Left to ride his government issued metal horse.

Got the girl.
And won my heart.

Fast forward to now, where a little girl made the decision to embrace the concept of, "what you can do for your country".  I grew up wanting to make a difference with compassion, like that silent soldier at Kennedy's grave did for me. Our charity for wounded soldiers is more than a "Do-Gooder" exercise.  It's paying it forward...with love and respect.

That day when I was so unsteady on my feet, a soldier literally had my back.  Today, I have his.  Our charity doesn't just give archery equipment to help soldiers heal physically.  We offer a hand to someone whose world might be a little unsteady.  We don't hand them a gift and push them out the door,  we actually care about that soldier.  And we stay in touch.  

For me, it's the ultimate "Thank You" to those two soldiers:
the one who could've rushed past but made time to care about me
the one who made me see the man, not the wheelchair.  


Chef Files said...

I doubt that there is a single Irish household that does not have some sort of memorabilia in regard to the gentleman in question. He is also probably the only American president that anyone in the UK will know. The rest are rather bland, in my opinion. There was that Bush fool, but he wasn't human, was he?

hope said...

Chef: I thought about that. There was an article in today's newspaper bemoaning the fact that today's generation isn't even interested in this as history...mostly because they're only interested in "now". Sad. Thanks for taking the time to read it: don't know why on this computer it has so many lines skipping...the work computer didn't show that.

savannah said...

i remember seeing/meeting him when he ran for president. my grandma and my mama took me to a rally and they pushed me to the front, so i got to sort of shake his hand. i say sort of because i was a kid, but i remember him looking right at me and touching my hand. his words guided many of us to public service, sugar. thank you for sharing your poetry. xoxoxo

hope said...

Sav: I bet that was quite the meeting! Poetry was a challenge thrown down a few years back to tell a story in as few words as possible..that's next to impossible for me. :)

Chef Files said...

No, dear lady. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

maurcheen said...

As my ever growing friend has already noted, JFK was on the mantlepiece of almost every Irish home at one time alongside the Pope and the Sacred Heart photies. He paid a visit to our wee town the same year he was assassinated.

Ponita in Real Life said...

Although I am the same age as you, Hope, I don't really remember Kennedy, although I am sure his assassination was well televised up here in Canada. I don't even know if we had a tv then, as we lived on a very small Air Force base. And I think Canada only had two stations back then ~ one French and one English.

But the impression JFK made on so many worldwide can not be discounted. Obviously, the effect he had on you (and what a wonderful poem you wrote!) is in full bloom and wonderfully so! I am proud of you and your hubby for starting your Crossroads group and for the work you do with your Seniors. You have a lovely warm and very big heart!