Ask what you can do for your country

Monday afternoon, Hyannis, Mass.

Hyannis is one of those places that you’ve heard about before. This is probably because the Kennedy family has their “compound” here. It’s actually in Hyannisport, but Hyannis is the short-hand version. I probably first heard of Hyannis as a line in a Boston song called “Rock and Roll Band” on their debut album. This seems like it was probably based on a gig that they played there back in the 1970s. How I wish they had put out more than the three albums they did. And no, anything post-Brad Delp doesn’t count for me.

So yesterday was a day trip to Hyannis, to see a potato chip factory and a baseball bat company (that was in Centerville, actually) and then a visit to the main drag, which is literally called Main Street. There is a JFK Museum and the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame, located in the same building along Main Street, but I bypassed that in favor of a book sale at the Hyannis Public Library. It’s housed in a building that was built in “17-something” (the actual date doesn’t seem to matter very much) and many books were available. I picked up a baseball yearbook from 20 years ago, and a book of American-themed sayings and observations, for the more-than-reasonable sum of $1.60 (which would have been $1.50 but there wasn’t enough change on hand).

I proceeded to the benches which were in front of the JFK museum, which is literally next door to the public library. I began reading through the America book, which was probably pushed to market sometime after the 2001 attacks (it even had a 2001 copyright date). There were literally hundreds of these sayings, many of which I had heard or read before, but some were new and all were thought-provoking (my favorite was by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Democracy cannot be static. Whatever is static is dead.”).

I was jumping around in order, not making a linear progression through the book, when I came to the famous Kennedy quote of “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”  After reading these words I paused, looked up at the statue of the man who said these words, and felt a sense of inspiration that the cynical part of me rarely allows in.

I try to be as hopeful as I can be in the course of day-to-day living, but there are so many instances of self-interest and self-aggrandizement, especially in the political realm, that it’s easy to forget that public servants are supposed to inspire us. They’re supposed to make us want to do great things. And Kennedy’s words, unlike many of the words that were written or spoken in centuries past, were broadcast on television and on the radio, to the eyes and ears of those who wanted to be inspired.

President Kennedy was shot and killed, and he is, in my mind, a martyr for the cause of America. He created the Peace Corps, led the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe (and fortunately no further than that), and took on the entrenched segregation practices of the Jim Crow South. It’s easy to overlook these things, if the Kennedys are (as some would like to have it) reduced to a bunch of philandering elitists. But I don’t see them in that way. They (and I’m counting Bobby Kennedy in this, for he was also killed a few days before I was born) served their country–North and South, Black and White, Rich and Poor–and paid a heavy price for doing so. And being in Hyannis made me appreciate this in a way that I never really had before.

The day before going to Hyannis, I was at the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, staring at the graves of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and those who were killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. They are known because they helped to overthrow a despotic ruler and replace it with something better. Their words and actions inspired Americans of the 18th century, and the words of John Kennedy had the same impact on Americans in the 20th century, during the hottest and most threatening time of the Cold War. And, as I discovered yesterday, his words resonate in the 21st century, as well.

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