On JFK, white horses and memories
I was astonished to recently find this photo in the online archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
We still have the photo from the day JFK visited the Sioux City Stockyards. When I was a kid, my sisters and I would take it out of a small box kept in the china cabinet and hold it like a prayer card.
There he was, President Kennedy, up on a white horse, flashing that toothy Kennedy smile, surrounded by grinning cowhands in their dirty work clothes. I always searched the crowd around Kennedy hoping to finally catch a glimpse of my dad, who worked at the stockyards, but he wasn’t in the photo, no matter how many times I looked.
“I got to shake hands with him,” my dad would always say.
My family had a reverence about that picture, a black-and-white testament to our brief touch with the knight of Camelot. The Kennedys, for my Irish Catholic family, were a source of immense pride. My gruff grandmother kept pictures of JFK and Jackie in her bedroom, while the photos of her own grandchildren were hung on the walls of a dark den across the hall.
The Kennedys were the glamorous reflection of what my family believed in – Catholicism and community service. We certainly didn’t look like them, or have their wealth and sophistication, but we could worship from afar. My dad always said “JFK,” much as he still calls the Blessed Virgin Mary “the BVM.”
Yet, the Kennedy fascination was also up close, so much so that we called them by their first names. Jackie, John-John, Bobby, Ethel, Rose. My parents kept our black-and-white TV on for days after Bobby Kennedy was killed and it may have been the first time I saw my dad cry. The only disappointment about the family I ever heard was when Jackie married that “damn Onassis.”
At the time of Kennedy's election, my parents had just married, two small-town Nebraska kids setting out together and starting a family. I was born in 1960, just a few days after John-John., and my mom still smiles at the memory, so proud an Irish Catholic was in the White House.
"We were so full of hope," she says.
Our life was centered around St. Michael’s, a tiny white church tucked into Leeds, a small town-turned-suburb of Sioux City, Iowa, a Missouri River town known as a jumping-off place for Lewis and Clark. We lived out in the country, 30 acres of green rolling hills sitting square off a gravel road, yet close enough to town to ride a bike to school.
My two younger sisters and I attended elementary school at St. Michael’s and my mother taught seventh grade. Mom was a member of the Altar Society, the ladies’ group that cleaned the church and held fish fries during Lent, and my dad participated in the Mass, as only men were allowed at the time.
I grew up with the idea that doing things “for the parish,” as my parents always put it, was a common, daily occurrence done for the good of the community. Not an option, really, but a duty. And while duty connotes a certain amount of drudgery, perhaps, my folks often seemed to have a good time while they did the work. They carried a bottle in a brown paper bag to the Saturday night dances that raised money for the church. And there was what they called “9 o’clock beer” get-togethers with parish friends on summer nights.
When I got older, of course, I learned about the shadow side of the Kennedys and I was pretty miffed at a high school debate teacher who burst my bubble. After I wrote a speech extolling the virtues of the clan, he challenged me to look into each of the Kennedy brothers’ record, research how Joseph Kennedy made his money and read up on an event called Chappaquiddick. I was stunned and shaken to think that those people we had placed up on the pedestal in my sheltered little world were, in fact, quite human.
It was a huge lesson and I believe it shaped something in me that is a critical piece of becoming a journalist – never accept anything as the truth unless you’ve checked it out. And, to the dismay of my parents, I began to understand and believe in that bumper sticker wisdom: question authority.
I've detoured from that road my parents paved for me -- I left the Catholic Church when I was 18, my fledgling feminism already offended at its views on women and reproductive rights. Earlier, by my high school years, I was challenging the authority of the nuns and priests at school, something my parents would never do. (Although my mother, who had to work with the cranky, controlling nuns for years, called them "hoods," in an obvious reference to what they wore then and a mild suggestion that they could be criminal.)
But I think I've kept my parents’ sense of duty and fun. When I’m asked to speak to classes, I always tell students that I have the best job in the world. I get paid to question authority and be a professional smarty-pants. I worked for 15 years in Denver, a competitive two-newspaper town, which was the longest adrenaline rush I’ve had to date. Getting a big scoop was truly better than even chocolate, and picking up the deadwood edition of the paper the morning I had the front-page story was always a thrill.
I’ve worshiped at the altar of journalism. I’m built to stick up for the underdog, out corrupt officials and question the common wisdom. I don’t look so good in tights – I don’t have the legs for it -- but I’ve certainly donned my own red cape a few times. Still, I’m no sanctimonious Supergirl. Because I can’t claim I’m doing it for the common good when I’ve had so damn much fun being a badass.
I hadn’t seen the picture of JFK on the white horse for years. So I called my dad a while ago to rekindle my memory. Yes, dad said, he certainly remembered the picture and even that day. Kennedy was running for president and dad said he was on a campaign swing through Iowa before the 1960 election.
“They put him up on that white mule,” dad said, “the one old Elmer Steinbeck rode around the yards.”
What? JFK’s white horse was actually a mule?
“He got on the mule because that’s the Democratic symbol,” my dad said, as if still talking to his seven-year-old daughter.
All of a sudden, the truth uncovered in my own reporting ended my memory of the Irish knight in a black suit up on his white horse. And gone was the glamour, replaced with a guy named Elmer on a donkey. Didn’t matter to dad. His memory was on JFK.
“I got to shake hands with him,” dad said.