Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Cold Morning Fifty Years Ago

by Paul Nolting

Today is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years ago I was a first grader in a Catholic school in Queens, New York. I remember the day with the fogginess and clarity of childhood memories. It had snowed heavily, and school was closed. I was out playing in the snow drifts on Sutter Avenue. Just before the ceremony began, my mother called me to come inside and see it on TV. John Kennedy would be the first Catholic president, and he was Irish like we were. I had to watch history being made, and I would be glad I did when I was older.

I don't remember the oath of office or President Kennedy's speech. I only remember watching Robert Frost. The new President had invited the famous old poet to read a poem at the event. He stepped to the podium and began to read, but he stumbled and stopped. Everyone got worried. Then he recited a different poem from memory, in a strong and clear voice. My mother said that he was old, and the glare from the sun shining on the snow made it even harder for him. But it was wonderful that he remembered the other poem, and recited it so well.

Fifty years later I watched the inauguration again. President Kennedy's speech is so famous that I recognize many of the words even though I don't remember watching it. I now know that the poem Robert Frost tried to read was Dedication, which he had written to honor the occasion. When his eyes failed him, he recited The Gift Outright, a poem he had written many years earlier. It was a favorite of the new President, who sometimes quoted Frost's poems in his speeches.

I remember a cold morning and Robert Frost's white hair and strong voice on the television. I also remember my mother's pride in what was happening and in the fact that her children were watching. Fifty years later I am glad.