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JFK, Billy and Me

The night wind was bone-chilling as the passing presidential candidate stretched out to reach my hand and clasp it firmly. His nostrils exhaled steam, like a workhorse’s in winter.

“Thank you for coming out,” he’d said on our first handshake. The crowd surrounding his limousine convertible was thick as molasses. After releasing his hand, I slogged through the sluggish flow of people to overtake the motorcade and catch up with him again.

“Thank you,” he said at our second handshake. His teeth flashed the smile of all smiles. At that, I bucked against the crowd one more time to wriggle up front and stretch out my hand.

“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” he asked when we pressed flesh a third and final time.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Well, thanks again,” he said. “I hope the voters share your enthusiasm next month.” With that, his motorcade inched past me, blending into the throng of onlookers and, beyond that, into history.

It was autumn, 1960; the candidate, John F. Kennedy. I was 13 years old, in 7th grade, and didn’t know diddly about politics. The rally was at Reilly Stadium in Salem, Ohio, a quiet industrial town, population 13,000, about 60 miles south of Cleveland. The oxymoronic nickname of our high school was “the fighting Quakers,” named after the pacifist religious sect that helped settle the town in the early 1800s, and had also been instrumental in organizing it as a rest stop for former slaves using the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. (Ironic footnote: Richard Nixon, a Quaker himself, who eventually lost this election to Kennedy, later, in 1969, would become president and conduct the Vietnam War for most of his doomed presidency.)

“I think the guy’s cool,” my school chum Billy said to me about JFK, following the frenetic fanfare on that chilly Midwestern evening. He huffed into his fists to warm them up. Except for the two of us, the street outside the football stadium was now dark and abandoned — littered with confetti, cardboard signs and discarded tin pins, all promising hope for humanity.

“Yeah, I shook his hand three times,” I said.

Billy, also 13, and I attended the political rally only to get away from our drunken parents, who were busy beating the crap out of each other at our respective houses that night.

“If I hear you went to that rally, I’ll whip the dog shit out of you, boy, when you come home!” my father threatened as I left the house. “Last thing this country needs is some Catholic cocksucker running it!”

My parents were Republicans.

Later, at Billy’s house, I remember his mother squealing in anguish while his father slapped her around. Billy had three little sisters his dad slapped around, too.

“I’m gonna kill that fucker someday,” Billy said as he slammed the front door on his way out to the rally. And he did kill his father, almost three years to the day after saying this. With a rifle he would buy on money he’d make hustling pool tables at the local truck stop.

Three years later, then, in 1963, my friend Billy and President Kennedy would die about a month apart, both from gunshot wounds to the head— Billy’s self-inflicted after he shot and killed his abusive father in late October; Kennedy’s, at the hands of an assassin in late November.

A few days after Billy’s closed-casket funeral, now 16 years old, I was lying on a couch and listening to a tiny transistor radio late at night in another friend’s basement, where I often slept following the violent disintegration of my own family. I heard a voice on the radio say, “Today, in the backyard of the White House, the president was shot with a .22 caliber rifle.” And that was all I heard, even though I reached out and turned up the volume to get the rest of the story.

The next day, still in October, I asked around school if the president had been shot the previous day at the White House. But no one had heard anything about it. It would be another month before Kennedy’s black limousine convertible actually made its tragic left turn on Elm Street in Dallas, past the Texas School Book Depository, toward a theretofore relatively unknown grassy knoll.

Given the gravity of these events in my life, I sometimes find myself wondering: Had some indelible connection been forged when I shook the hand of the ill-fated presidential hopeful three years before his death? Was that voice on the radio — in October, 1963 — a premonition? To these questions, I have no solid answer. But I do know one thing for sure. I did get the dog shit whipped out of me when I got home from the political rally that night, in 1960. And Billy did, too. Several lifetimes ago.

A version of this column first appeared in CityLife Jan. 24, 2008. It’s being reprinted here in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Chip Mosher is a simple classroom teacher.