Mark Ellis, en route to Hawaii for a new life with his family, remembers the day the country grieved — and the day it began to heal.
When the news came that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas my family was sitting in a hotel room near San Francisco Airport, waiting for the flight that would take us into our new lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
In the midst of a corporate transfer, we were already in upheaval: a new promotion for my father, new schools for us four kids, and a big new juggling act for my stay-at-home mom. By the time our propeller-driven airliner touched down in Honolulu after eight hours over the North Pacific, the flags over Pearl Harbor were flying at half-mast.
We celebrated Thanksgiving that year in the company of my father’s new associates at the beautiful Manoa Valley home of a top manager. The kids and teens present, of which there were many, attempted overtures and rustled up games with their counterparts. We understood that an abidingly bad thing had happened, but the exigencies of youth found their tributaries.
It is plain to me now from the photos of that first Hawaii Thanksgiving that the parents serving up traditional mainland turkey and stuffing around those tables were subdued, unsettled, and in various stages of shock.
Only now, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the passing of what for me, and for my family, was not ironically named Camelot, do I sense that it would have been better for us if we had been able to absorb the reality of the assassination while still secure in our small tract-house ranch on quiet Medinah Street in Hayward, California.
We were all, even my conservative father, Kennedy believers. Moreover, we loved Senator Kennedy. Staying up late on election night 1960 at age 10 was my first political vigil. Around one AM Pacific Time I fell asleep; only the next morning did I learn that Kennedy had won.
But for the transfer—they always came with little advance notice–we would have experienced the horror and madness of November 22, 1963 among family, friends, and neighbors. I was thirteen, and had gone through seven grades with the same schoolmates.
On the beach at Waikiki, and later in our neighborhood only a barefoot walk from Kailua Beach on the windward side, we walked among tanned and ethnically diverse strangers in an oddly benumbed paradise.
Slowly over those first weeks and months the reality of our new circumstances was revealed. Business associates became friends, and the families became a close-knit group of lucky refugees who had pulled a long straw from the company assignment pool.
We ate lemon-peel, rejected poi, sunburned and learned about sun-block on the beach, dived for sea turtles, and set sail in tiny Sunfish boats for top-hat islets. My brothers and sisters and I ran the gauntlet of a public school system not always friendly to mainland white kids, the haoles.
My parents don’t say as much, but I suspect they regard the time in Hawaii as the beautiful years of their marriage, though our four years on Oahu began with an ageless tragedy.
Somewhere on a distant continent gripped by a distant winter Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated, the first in a series of perpetual distancings which only partially, to this day, have assuaged the pain of the loss of John Kennedy, or dimmed the belief system he inspired.
What happened next is best described in this excerpt from the Official Ed Sullivan Show website:
Just 77 days prior to the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, President Kennedy had been assassinated. By now, the country was ready for some much-needed diversion, and it came in the form of four young lads from Liverpool, their sound, their looks, their energy, and their charisma.
February 9th 1964. 73 million tuned in, and for so many of us that first Sullivan appearance registered as the moment a blessed positivism returned to the collective consciousness.
At Kailua’s only record shop the next day I got my hands on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and its B-side, “I Saw Her Standing There.” The dual mega-hit single was flying off the front counter.
Our experiment in democracy having sustained a fundamental wounding, we looked to Britain, America’s mother country, the original inspiration for the vision of Camelot, whose yoke we’d thrown off, and who now sent four artist-emissaries to offer a soundtrack to accompany our climb out of national despair.