George Samiljan was a captivating young man and is a compelling adult. I liked him as a child and admire him as a man. But I’ll never socialize with him — never — and we both know why. He and I are tied by tragedy, and divided by tragedy.
Nov. 22, 1963, was a shimmery afternoon in the beach town where we both grew up, and when the dismissal bell rang at 2:10 at school, he and I set out to walk through Orchard Circle and up Humphrey Street en route to my house on Stanley Road. We were pupils in Dorothy Rich’s fourth-grade classroom, and the Stanley School was one of those timeless places on the New England coast, and not only because the clock on the outside of the brick building was stuck, much like the clock atop the Old Vicarage in Grantchester immortalized by a splendid man who died young, Rupert Brooke.
This was a Friday and we were free of school and there were snacks to be had at home and a weekend ahead to be enjoyed. We were halfway home when the police lady who stood at Salem Street — flustered, frantic, even — hurried to us. “The president’s been shot,” she screamed, the volume intended to impress us with the urgency of it all, though the words were startling enough. “Get home immediately.”
We did, and there at home was my grandmother, a worry wart on her best days, a portrait of panic on this day. Her son — my uncle — had been on PT 111 in John Kennedy’s star-crossed squadron, and though ordinarily she had no patience for Democrats, Kennedy was a special case and had enjoyed special favor.
In his landmark 1952 Senate race against the redoubtable Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Rep. John F. Kennedy, the congressman from Massachusetts’ 11th district and the onetime commander of PT 109, had stopped in her hometown of Salem and had spoken to her about the son she had lost in the Pacific during World War II. That meant the world to her, because that son — and of course her other, surviving, son, my father — had meant the world to her. And so on this day the one loss mixed with the other, so profoundly that a nine-year-old could sense it, so poignantly that a 59-year-old cannot forget it.
That terrible afternoon I sat in front of the television in a room we called the den and watched the black-and-white images flicker by, not knowing that those images would remain with me forever; following the news with remarkable attention, not knowing that the news would become not only my avocation but my vocation as well; thinking about the president whose administration I barely understood, not knowing that the years 1961-1963 would mark me like no others.
Indeed, decades would pass and yet I am stuck on those three years, stuck like a broken record, even though that simile itself is stuck in that vinyl era and meaningless in this one. I have long believed that in life it is not very important how old you are, but it is very important when you were young. (It was on that weekend that Daniel Patrick Moynihan said to Mary McGrory that while they might laugh again, they would never be young again.)
And so the lessons of the Kennedy years, both the triumphs and the tragedies, have stuck with me, with a stubborn vividness, far more so than anything from the years of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all of whose presidencies I witnessed firsthand as a reporter. I knew every one of those men, and Gerald R. Ford, too, and yet it is Kennedy, whom I never met, I feel I know best.
Those three Kennedy years are the son et lumiere show of my subconscious. When my brother Jeff and I fought sometime in the fall of 1960 — a 6-year-old beating up on a 4-year-old, not exactly a championship prize fight — my mother, who wasn’t even a native American, called us aside and said: Look at those Kennedy brothers. One of them is running for president and the other brother is helping him, not fighting with him. My earliest political memory is the Kennedy inaugural address, an occasion for our Canadian mother, who emerges in this tale as a bit of a political opportunist, to urge us to ask not what she could do for us.
Hardwired into my brain is President Kennedy’s American University speech, which of course I never heard but whose words I know by heart. (“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children.”)
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory is the Kennedy Trade Mart speech, which I also never heard, because no one ever heard it, as it was to be delivered later that afternoon in Dallas. (Words to remember, even so: “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”)
And I cannot count the times I have told my kids that they should take on some challenge not because it is easy but because it is hard. (They know nothing of JFK’s Rice University speech of 1962 that set America on a trajectory to the moon, but they have heard its theme many times.)
All these years later — a husband, a father, a newspaper editor, above all a premature but recondite old timer, maybe even a relic — I still am drawn to John Kennedy, not so much for what he did but for what he represented. If, as Kennedy said in an unforgettable phrase, Winston Churchill mobilized the English language, then it can be said that John Kennedy mobilized the American idiom in service of American idealism. His eloquence was a fire that truly lit the world, and anyone of my turn of mind knows exactly why that phrase jumped effortlessly from my fingers, and why it courses through my veins and shapes my thoughts, even now, even after so much time, even after so much revisionism, even after so much cynicism.
Now we are at the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest Fridays any of us will ever know. I’ve grown up and perhaps grown old, but never outgrown the agony of that afternoon, which I remember better than I remember yesterday — because it has, to me, always been part of the present, never the past.
And so I never invited Bud Samiljan home to play again. I bump into him every decade or so and we unfailingly exchange a warm hello, and maybe a handshake. But that’s it. No reminiscences, no promises to get together sometime. Because we won’t get together sometime. We never will. We are tied, and divided, by one afternoon.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890). A version of this column appears in the LIFE magazine retrospective “The Day Kennedy Died.”