JFK — Cut Down “In the Summer of His Years”

Photo by Jim LaBate

Souvenirs Tell Stories: Part 5 — An Old 45

My wife and I have not had a record turntable in over 30 years. Only last year, however, did we finally get rid of our old albums and 45s, some of which we sold to a used-record store and the rest we donated to the Salvation Army. We did have one old 45, though, that I held on to for sentimental reasons. That record from 1963 is a song called “In the Summer of His Years” sung by Connie Francis.

Most likely, only Baby Boomers and beyond will remember this song because it rarely gets any airplay today. It’s not a classic oldie with popular appeal, it’s not a gimmicky song that resurfaces periodically, and it’s not even a seasonal song that gets played during the summer or during a holiday season. No, this particular song is that rare tune, a sad, mournful song that commemorates one of the saddest days in recent American history: November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I’m holding on to this 45, even though I can’t play it, because it reminds me so vividly of our 35th president, both for the idealism that he inspired when he ran for office and was elected and for the shock and sadness that encompassed us all when this tragedy occurred before the end of his third year in office.

When JFK ran for president during the fall of 1960, I was a goofy, nine-year-old, fourth grader growing up in Amsterdam, New York, and my athletic friends and I normally ignored politics altogether; we were much more interested in the daily exploits of Yankee outfielders like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Somehow, though, candidate Kennedy won us over. In fact, after Kennedy visited our small town and talked about his plans for a “New Frontier,” we were swept up in the hysteria, and we began to collect JFK campaign pins and bumper stickers as avidly as we had previously collected baseball cards.

Drawing by Jeff Mosher for Jim LaBate

The excitement continued after Kennedy was elected, and within a year, he began to implement his ideas for the space program and putting a man on the moon, for sending young Americans overseas as part of the Peace Corps, and for putting an end to poverty in America. I was so inspired by his Peace Corps idea that I applied during my senior year in college and served proudly in Costa Rica during 1974 and 1975. I had become one of “JFK’s children,” a phrase the press sometimes used for the Volunteers in those days.

Sadly and unfortunately, those heady days of Camelot came to an abrupt halt when Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, as the song title explains, “in the summer of his years.” By then, I was a cool, seventh grader, and, like most people alive on that day, I’ll never forget the shock and disbelief we all experienced when our school principal interrupted our last-period math class with an announcement about the shooting. The girls cried, the boys were speechless, and Sister Anne Eugene had the presence of mind to say a prayer for us all. “He’ll survive,” we told each other when class ended, and returned to our homeroom for dismissal. Before we went home, however, a second announcement came through: our president, our innocence, and our optimism all died on that autumn afternoon.

The song itself, according to Wikipedia, was written just hours after the assassination by lyricist Herb Kretzmer with music by David Lee. The song was first performed a few days later by English singer Millicent Martin on the British television show That Was The Week That Was. That show was normally a satirical news program, but that particular episode became an exclusive tribute to the fallen president.

Soon after, various artists performed the song, and the Connie Francis version, produced by MGM Records, enjoyed the most success, reaching number 46 on the Billboard charts. Personally, I was surprised when I discovered that rather low number, but the Wikipedia article explained that many radio stations refused to play the song because they felt it was “in poor taste to capitalize on such a tragic situation.”

Fifty-five years have passed since JFK’s assassination, and I sometimes wonder how our nation might have been different if he had gone on to finish his term in office? Would he have been reelected? If so, would he have handled the situation in Vietnam differently? Would he have done more or less than his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to secure civil rights for all?

Obviously, we will never know the answers to these questions, so, instead, we are left with only our souvenirs, our memories, and a tragic reminder that no one, not even the president of the United States, is assured a long and prosperous life. With that in mind, let us all say a sincere prayer of Thanksgiving for the many blessings we enjoy and for the special people in our lives.

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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