Chasing Presidents #35
Only in college, perhaps, do you make such fast friends that you spend an entire day together and know very little about them. Such was the case my first Saturday at Penn State. A morning of Ultimate Frisbee, followed by lunch, followed by an afternoon social, followed by dinner, followed by ice cream downtown, followed by a 10PM trip to the mailboxes before ending the evening with a marathon of silly movies. My new friend reached into the long box and his eyebrows leaped up his forehead.
He pulled out the unmistakable, even from three feet away- a greeting card. I asked who it was from. “My Mom,” he said after glancing at the writing. Out loud I said, “Aw, that is nice- a random card from your Mom.”
He said, “Well, its my birthday.”
I might have gasped. “What? Today?”
He chuckled, “Yeah, all day.”
I was exasperated. “Why didn’t you say something?”
My new friend lifted his hand and flipped it upside down. “No big deal. It’s just another day.”
I know not the sentiment that causes young men to disregard a birthday. Perhaps, though, I should know it now, having spent another twenty-five years following The Birthday Shrug meeting countless people who give the day of their birth as little thought as any other day of reasonable significance. Not so for me. I am not as bad as Michael Scott at work, begging people to celebrate, but quite the opposite. I always take a vacation day on my birthday. Because there is nothing I hate more than someone accidentally finding out it is my birthday and offering up as if they were asked: “It’s just another day.”
Perhaps the good folks at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum outside of Boston thought the President’s 105th birthday was just another day. Perhaps they were still exhausted from the yearlong celebration of his Centennial. Perhaps, because it was a Sunday and therefore a day of Rest they decided to give any birthday cheer a day off. I know, I am begging for the reader to roll your eyes. But would you believe I spent three hours of John F. Kennedy’s 105th birthday INSIDE his Presidential Library and there was not one mention of the fact it was May 29th?
But then again, his mother, Rose Kennedy, gave more ink in her memoir to hitting a ditch in their car in 1916 than the birth of her second son and future President.
Is there not much to tell? Probably not for someone who eventually bore nine children by 1932. And perhaps the fact her autobiography was written just ten years following his assassination I should forgive the omission. In my thirty-five years of studying John Kennedy, I have never spoken a cross word for Rose and I will not start now.
I will forgive Rose, but the Library? They have some explaining to do.
My morning began heading West on empty Boston roads. I was exactly 3,000 miles behind John Kennedy when he stood in the Los Angeles Colosseum, right in front of his Mother, delivering the line that would define his presidency: “I stand here tonight, facing west, on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3,000 miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts- nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free- an example to the world… And we stand today, on the edge of a New Frontier, the frontier of the 1960’s.”
Remember when Presidents eloquently defined an era and gave us something to do?
But if the truth be told, I was not in Boston over Memorial Day weekend to traipse around in the footsteps of the Kennedy’s. This was my third trip to Boston in three separate decades, but the first when I had another purpose. I have recently discovered I have familial roots in Lexington, Cambridge and Harvard. Not Harvard University, mind you, but the other Harvard. The village of Harvard. I couldn’t wait to get back to Massachusetts and traipse, yes that’s what I do on these adventures, around in the footsteps of my ancestors.
But when I woke up on May 29th, 2022 in Boston and headed West, I could not help but pull off the Interstate at the Brookline exit and type 83 Beals Street into Google. After passing a wild turkey near Coolidge’s Crossing (a jurisdiction near Brookline which also has more ink in Mrs. Kennedy’s memoirs than the birth of the president), I turned down one of the most picturesque settings in Massachusetts. Beals Street is lined with large, beautiful trees that were probably seedlings in 1917 if they were alive at all.
I knew in advance that the Birthplace of John Kennedy was closed for renovations. That didn’t matter as much to me as standing there on this date. I sat on the bench on the porch, wondering if 105 years before one could hear a baby crying upstairs shortly after 3pm. I wondered if it was hot that day. And, to be honest, I wondered if Joe was home.
A man walking a large dog down the sidewalk on the other side of the street paid very little attention to me, but acknowledged I was there. I sat. I wondered. I watched the sunlight flicker through the trees. I listened for the baby.
I didn’t stay long. Beals Street is an active community that probably tires of Kennedy people. Not those Kennedy people, mind you, but Kennedy people like me. I got back in my car and had an overwhelming thought of Joe and Rose Kennedy. And I wanted to visit them.
One more moment on Google and I pulled the car up and down Brookline Streets to Holyhood Cemetery where Joe and Rose Kennedy are buried with a few grandchildren and their daughter Rosemary. I stood there for a long time. Joe and Rose have separate stones in front of a larger stone that simply reads, Kennedy.
I stared at the dates on Rose’s stone. 1890-1995. My gosh. I knew she lived to be 105 years old, but I dared not predict after her death that I would be in Boston on the day her son turned the exact same age.
I wasn’t going to turn back toward Boston that morning- my plan the entire trip was to leave without visiting the Library and Museum. But visit on his 105th birthday, I must.
This is unusual. It is rare I ever turn around on a road trip. But this day I did. I pulled back on the Interstate and headed East toward Columbia Point where Jaqueline Kennedy decided her husband’s library should be constructed.
I was a tad early, as I often am during road trips. Following in the footsteps of presidents is an early- morning adventure. I sat by the sea, as perhaps John Kennedy would have sat. Passersby all greeted me, even the dogs as they enjoyed the early morning air that was not yet hot. I closed my eyes… and yearned yet to hear a baby cry.
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum opened at 10AM. Actually it opened a few moments before 10 as a short line had formed. Another young man, (gosh that’s a stretch, I am no longer a young man) who had greeted me by the waterfront was ahead of me in line. He was smiling and certainly wanted to be told by the clerk that it was nice of him to visit the museum on the President’s birthday. But the clerk said nothing. It reminded me of my first visit to the Library in September, 2003. “I drove all the way from Ohio to visit today,” I announced to the woman behind the counter accepting my cash for a ticket. She said nothing. In 2015, much the same reaction as I asked for a membership brochure and paid the extra amount to be considered a supporter of this place dedicated to preserving the memory of President Kennedy. The man then seemed irritated that I was going to take longer than usual. Gosh, do these folks even like John Kennedy?
He said nothing to me about the President’s birthday. He pointed to the direction of the restrooms for me and said if I hurry, I would be back in time for the start of the film. Did he sense I was rushed? Was it his first day? Or perhaps, like so many national monument employees, was this simply a job and he had no interest in the subject?
I skipped the film, deciding to wander the halls of the museum alone, hoping to skip the small crowd that arrived at the opening. I slowly walked along, perusing artifacts that have become, after the aforementioned thirty-five years, a bit familiar to me.
Familiar is how I feel inside the Kennedy Library. In fact, so familiar I don’t really like it. It hasn’t changed since my first visit in 2003, except for the film featuring the audio tapes during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was alone in the theater for the showing and still think it is the best interpretation of those thirteen days I have ever witnessed. People who don’t believe John Kennedy ‘did’ anything during his presidency ignore the fact he single-handedly prevented World War III.
But the rest of the museum is a bit stale. The artifacts are few and far between, because I can’t count the gifts from World Leaders that fill this ‘museum’ as ‘artifacts.’ Forgive me, please, because it is rather painful to write what is blatant criticism, but I would like to see artifacts which were a part of President Kennedy’s daily life. I don’t care much about something the president of a foreign nation gave ‘the president’ and not necessarily because he was John Kennedy.
There is the Resolute Desk, somewhat muted because unfortunately every president since Kennedy has used it. There are wonderful pictures gracing the walls and of course the whole floor is laid out like the first floor of the White House, lots of white columns and broad expansive hallways. There were a few blank walls. Completely blank. I hope they have plans for those.
But, forgive me again, the museum is boring.
It wasn’t until I found the new exhibit about Caroline and John Jr. in the White House that my spirits lifted. And it wasn’t until the very end of that exhibit that I felt like I was in a KENNEDY library as a film of Caroline from last year played and she explained how she loved the doll collection now before me.
I walked down the hallway lined with Hemingway paperbacks leading out to the glass foyer with the tremendous flag hanging in the rafters. It is certainly impressive. I walked upstairs to the café and ate a tuna fish sandwich and briefly chatted with the clerk, who at least smiled, but forgot to mention anything about the president’s birthday.
Moments later, I sauntered into the gift shop where a video narrated by Edward Herrman showcased the presidency of William Howard Taft. I am not kidding. While shopping for gifts to remind me of John Kennedy- while shopping for books to tell me more about John Kennedy- the gift shop played a video about Presidents which was currently featuring William Howard Taft.
I have nothing against Taft as he hails from my home state. But my goodness. There are two, perhaps three presidents who have moved us as a nation since FDR and in the gift shop of one’s presidential library I learned the cultural superficial factoids of William Howard Taft.
I picked up the latest biography of Kennedy by Mark Updegrove titled, Incomparable Grace. But then it was time to go. Time to get on the road toward Ohio and Taft-Land.
As I walked out of the Library, making it an official two hours and ten minutes without hearing so much as a whisper about his birthday, I saw men unloading chairs from a box truck. Ah! Perhaps there is a dinner tonight. Perhaps Caroline is on her way over and they were holding the cake for an afternoon crowd.
I thought about staying. But it’s a ten hour drive home and I had plans to stop in Buffalo at the grave of Millard Fillmore.
I pulled off the property of the Kennedy Library and set Google toward Home.
Happy Birthday, John Kennedy. I know it’s not just another day.