For one thing, I never voted, at all, during my twenties. I don’t recall giving politics a thought, not ever understanding the importance of the system as it related to me.
My generation learned about government in eighth grade civics class, 1946. (That was our first year of high school back then.) I was 12 years old. What did I know? I grew up in a household where local elections were always discussed, but I didn’t listen. Some of my relatives held public offices such as road commissioner and even the Georgia Legislature.
I still have some of the little cards they handed out during campaigns, colorful cards with photos, perfect for creating card games and collecting, but otherwise useless to a child. FDR’s photo was on the living room wall, along with Eugene Talmadge … and probably George Washington and Jesus.
By the time I was old enough to vote I had other things on my mind. By 1960, I was married and had three children, and was finally coming to grips with the idea that I was an adult and should behave accordingly. My memory here is a bit foggy.
I’m not sure when I first voted, but it was not that year, the year of Kennedy’s election, since we had moved to Rome in October and had not established residency. Soon another move found us in Canton, and yet another move in October of 1963 placed us in Bremen where we were on Friday, Nov. 22, that fateful day we’ll never forget.
Our little girls didn’t quite understand what was going on. They were in first, second and third grades. They saw their new friends and neighbors grieving, a new emotion for them.
They were watching TV with their parents and sisters on that Sunday as the assassin was murdered. They witnessed with the rest of the world as the unbelievable chain of events took us through hours and days of scenes that haunt us still.
During this week and weekend, with days and dates that correspond with 1963, we’ll find ourselves reliving the horror, still trying to comprehend the reality and the fallout of this national tragedy.
I had flashbacks on that day, remembering an April day in 1944 when FDR died. I was 9 years old, and he was the only president I had ever known.
He died suddenly, but of natural causes. He was not a young man, but he led with assurance, redeeming us from soup lines into a World War, and reminding us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. We somehow thought he would be with us forever.
With Kennedy, it was a different story. Not only was he young and vigorous, he seemed to have led us to the brink of integration, and even to outer space, with stops in Camelot along the way. With the added advantage of television, we watched it all, every step of the way.
There had been no television with FDR, just the static of the radio, the newsreels at the movies and newspapers and magazines. In each case, the future was uncertain, even as it is when the leader is healthy and safe.
In retrospect, there is no doubt that many Americans, including me, experienced a new appreciation for our democratic republic during those terrible days after JFK’s death. We saw how the nation as one body grieved, and how we couldn’t take our eyes off the TV screen and yet couldn’t bear to watch another minute.
Just one long year later, we would go to the polls to test the system once again. We would realize, perhaps for the first time, that the freedoms we enjoy, and the union of which we are a part, are priceless treasures, and that we should not take for granted or abuse those freedoms and that unity. These words are easily spoken, but to put them into practice is another matter.
We learned some lessons at this pivotal point in America’s history, lessons about security and diplomacy, and about the office of the presidency. But with each bit of knowledge comes new lessons to be learned.
I hope during these days of commemoration that all of us will resolve to take pride in our country, to recapture that patriotism we once had, and to encourage our youth to do the same.
Juanita Hughes is Woodstock’s official historian and former director of the Woodstock Public Library.