Fifty years ago today, October 13, 1962, JFK came to my hometown, Washington, Pa., to speak on behalf of Democratic candidates for the mid-term elections. His speech was from a platform in front of our beautiful courthouse and I stood with a high school buddy directly across the street.

I was excited because it was the PRESIDENT, not because that President was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Only two years prior to this date I had gone to school with Nixon buttons adorning large parts of my garb. My family was Republican and a friend of my parents from church, Raymond Dever, was a local GOP committeeman or other such functionary and had access to all manner of campaign paraphenalia. We had a huge Nixon-Lodge poster in our front window.

Nearly two years past the election loss that ended Richard Nixon’s political career, I was still not enamored of the winner, though the press spoke so admiringly of him and his lovely family.

There was a comedian of the time, Vaughan Meader, who had perfected an imitation of Kennedy and his speaking style and Massachusetts accent. He bore little physical resemblance to the real item but had his hair coiffed similarly and that was when we were still more a nation of listeners than watchers. TV and other visual images were not as omnipresent as they are today.

Meader made his mark with recorded imaginations of JFK press conferences, speeches, and conversations with associates and family. These recordings became extremely popular and were heard on radio stations everywhere and were funny as hell, no matter your personal political affiliation or preference.

Even more so, though Kennedy was not my choice for the office, he was OUR President and the annoncement of his impending visit to little ole WashPa, as we residents were fond of calling it, carried an air of excitement and anticipation usually reserved for the annual cross-town football clash between Washington High School (Go Prexies!) and the Hillers from Trinity High School who we teasingly looked down upon as farmers. (The name “Trinity” derived from the merger of three, somewhat rural, townships to form the district, not from any religious connotation.)

This Saturday morning folks streamed into town. The streets were packed a tad earlier than normal. This was prior to the transformation of small town shopping districts into tumbleweed clogged areas of boarded up storefronts. (An exaggeration but not a gross exaggeration.)

Most Saturdays the streets were filled with shoppers by noon or so and one could almost guarantee you would spot families familiar from all parts of your work, school and religious life treading the same sidewalks browsing the counters of 5 & 10’s, J.C. Penney’s, shoe stores, clothing stores, and druggists, perhaps stepping into the Main Street Isaly’s for some ice cream or to pick up some chipped chopped ham to take home to eat on Wonder Bread later.

I don’t know how thrilled our favorite merchants were that day. Maybe the crowds weren’t spending, preferring to secure a good vantage point to see the President. Or the shops may have done a landslide business as the townsfolk combined shopping pleasure with the business of witnessing politics in action from the highest level.

No matter, smiles were everywhere amid the hustle and bustle.

As the time for JFK’s arrival drew near it was very evident that this was no ordinary important person. It seemed all the local cops were out, some stationed on the roofs of taller buildings with rifles. (Taller as in over two stories.)

I seem to recall chatting briefly with one of the local constabulary, Chuck Mayer, all six foot seven inches of him. Until I was eleven my family lived half a block down the street from him and his oldest daughter Susan and my older sister Judy were close friends. Despite his size, Chuck was not intimidating, though I suppose that observation was NOT so true if one were on the wrong side of the law. He  had his own fling with politics becoming WashPa’s mayor (Mayor Mayer, as you will) for a time later that decade.

Parts of the day are not vivid in my memory, but those details are not of prime importance here The motorcade with the President arrived (possibly including the Lincoln limousine that became such a part of his tragic history just a year hence). The tall man with the wavy hair worked his way through the hordes to the parade reviewing stand set-up on the Washington County Courthouse steps.

I doubt any of us present remember his words though I am sure he made the standard pitch for the election or re-election of the Democrats on that year’s ballot. Hearing Vaughan Meader’s voice in person was a thrill, with the great kicker that it was not Vaughan Meader performing for a laugh starved audience but the genuine John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of The United States of America within easy eye and ear shot in my little home town.

When the speech was completed the CINC repaired to the George Washington Hotel, a classic downtown edifice, where he was to have lunch with and meet local dignitaries. My invitation must have got lost in the mail.

I had viewed the proceedings with a sophomore classmate, Gary Salada, and at some point we decided to head to the hotel and hang out with hopes of seeing the Prez up close upon his exit.

It required about a two hour or longer wait but Gary and I, having placed ourselves in the hotel lobby near the elevators, were rewarded. The elevator door opened and suddenly there he was!! Bigger than life, an actual President of our nation. Gary and I were not alone and the crowd surged around Kennedy, with little security to prevent personal contact.

We were on the left side of JFK and tried to shake his hand but he was turned slightly to his right with his hand extended in that direction. I had to be satisfied with reaching thorugh the crowd with my left hand and grasping JFK’s left elbow and giving it a faux shake.

In seconds he was out the door and, in the aftermath, my encounter almost seemed to be an unreal, never-happened experience though I knew and knew well that I had touched the flesh, or at least the suitcoat sleeve encased arm, of the leader of the Free World.

Shortly afterward we would learn what that designation entailed. On the 14th U-2 flights over Cuba confirmed the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles. Within days we were a nation in crisis with a real possibility of war. Going to school simply meant we were in a place where our desks would protect us from nuclear fallout, or at least that’s what our “duck and cover” air raid instructions told us.

That day taught the lesson that the President is OUR President, no matter who we voted for, no matter who we were told was the right man for the office, no matter the policies and laws that ensued during his term.

Of course a mere thirteen months later that same lesson was hammered home with the force of a pile driver.

In these turbulent days, I am not very confident that everyone has retained that lesson, even myself at times.

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