Camelot Deferred. The 20th Anniversary of the Death of John F. Kennedy Jr.
Updated: Jul 18, 2019
In the 1960s, both my parents came to the United States as immigrants from Poland. America represented the promise of a bright future and new beginnings. It was a hope personified by the young family occupying the White House. President John F. Kennedy inspired Americans to achieve new heights and to give back to their communities. To respect their fellow man. To go to the moon. Camelot was real and you could find it at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 1963, an assassin's bullet regulated Camelot back to the pages of a fairy-tale book.
The nation mourned the loss of the young president. Ask anyone who lived in that era and they will tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. My mother was among those who mourned the president. She had even purchased a small figurine of a young"John John" saluting his father's funeral procession. An iconic moment in time frozen in porcelain for eternity. It stood in my room throughout my childhood.
For many, John F. Kennedy Jr. was promise personified. A symbol of hope to return to the days of Camelot. John was the first child born to a president elect of the United States. Would he follow in his father's footsteps? Many had pinned their hopes of presidential aspirations on his shoulders . On July 16th, 1999, those hopes were dashed. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the day John's plane crashed off the shores of Martha's Vineyard. He was only 38. This July 16th also marks the 50th anniversary of another important day in the history of Camelot. It was the day Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy to fulfill JFK's promise that we would go to the moon.
I remember the summer of '99 vividly. Just a few years out of college, I was working in a bar with dreams of becoming a lawyer. A college friend had mentioned that the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace Law School was looking for an additional assistant for directors Karl Coplan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. If I landed the job, I could get half my law school tuition covered. Luck was on my side.
My very first week of work, I was thrust into a world I was not prepared for. Conspiracy nuts would call the office with wild theories about how certain Kennedy family members died. Movie stars called to rub elbows with the famous political dynasty. On my first day of work, I answered the phone with Harrison Ford on the other end asking for "Bobby". I should preface this by stating that I never thought in a million years I would have the opportunity to speak to Han Solo. In my defense, I will also add that the next town over was Harrison, New York. For whatever strange reason, when I heard "Harrison Ford", my first inclination was that I was speaking with a salesman from a Ford dealership in Harrison. Thinking it was an unsolicited sales call, I rushed him off the phone. In other words, I hung up on him. I hung up on Indiana Jones. The next call was just as shocking. It was John F. Kennedy Jr. calling to speak with his cousin Bobby. "I'm sorry Mr. Kennedy, Bobby is in the middle of teaching a class"
"Call me John", he remarked. "Are you a student of his?" he queried. I told him of my plans to go to law school and how thrilled I was to be working for his cousin. "Just getting my feet wet. I may have accidentally hung up on Harrison Ford" He chuckled and wished me luck. I was surprised at how down to earth and personable he was to me. I told some friends that I had a conversation with "John, John" The girls swooned. "I'm just as good looking" I groused. My friend responded by paraphrasing Senator Lloyd Bentsen's quip to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential debates. "Adrian, I've seen John F. Kennedy Jr. You're no John F. Kennedy Jr."
That Friday John's plane would go missing. The phone at the office was ringing off the hook. I took messages from various media outlets, politicians, well wishers and conspiracy nuts. I remember taking a call from Jim Belushi and telling him the plane was missing. Everyone seemed to feel a connection to the tragedy. The students in the environmental clinic walked around in shock. Three days later the Coast Guard announced they found the missing fragments of the plane.
On the morning of July 22, family members attended a memorial service on the Navy Destroyer the USS Briscoe. The ashes of John were scattered at sea. The tragic accident also took the life of his wife Caroline and his sister in law Lauren Bessette. I spent that morning answering a slew of phone calls. I remember one particularly revolting call from a gossip rag. I was offered a few hundred dollars for RFK Jr's personal cell phone number. They wanted to call him for an exclusive scoop at the funeral. For a student, the money would have been pretty helpful. I hung up on the caller in disgust.
It's been 20 years since my peek into Camelot. I did pursue a legal career and began practicing law in Connecticut. That little figurine of JFK Jr. my mother bought so many years ago stands on my desk. It is a reminder for me to give back to the community. To shoot for the moon.
In 2019, the country has never been so divided. Political rhetoric on social media has friends and relatives at each other's throats. It has become our new norm. The country is hurting. I can only imagine where we would be if JFK Jr. would be alive today. Would he have eventually run for president?
These days, we could use a return to Camelot. Rest easy, John.