In 1963, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer, assigned to La Plata, a small village of some 3,000 residents nestled at the 4,000 feet level of Colombia’s Andean mountains. It had no telephone systems, though there were episodic telegraphic services. On what soon would became a fateful morning of November 22, 1963, I had taken a bus into the Departmental capital, Neiva, to obtain some governmental authorizations of Community Development Funds for one of our projects. Like most every bus in our area, firmly set above the driver’s head were three pictures with Christmas tree lights around them: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and President John F. Kennedy. Later in the afternoon, about 3:30 PM or so, before boarding the bus for the trip back, I stopped at a newsstand to see if it had a recent copy of Time Magazine. There was one copy left!
In my excitement to read while paying for it, I paid little attention to a wildly gesturing sales clerk, arms all akimbo, shouting at me in desperation, words like ‘muerto’ (dead), John F. Kennedy ‘asesino’ (assassinated), ‘en la cabeza’ (in the head)–jabbing fingers to his head for added effect, etc.
I thought the man was either deranged or just anti-American, gave him no attention, and left rather than create a scene. He kept shouting after me, obviously quite upset at my dismissive attitude. I was self-absorbed, focused entirely on having Time Magazine all to myself during the ride back before having to share it with my site partners, Bob and Jim.
Upon arriving in La Plata, I noticed the streets were empty in the main plaza but a huge crowd had formed at the front door of our house just down the street. At first glance, it seemed that the entire village was at our front door! My initial thought was that something had happened to my site partners. As I moved closer, the crowd made way for me. No one spoke. Some reached out to put a gentle hand on my shoulder, lightly touch my hand, or to murmur something as I passed by, their faces prefiguring something that had to be unspeakable. No thought crossed my mind about anything the sales clerk had shouted to me back in Neiva.
Once inside our house, I went into a room where my two site partners were seated. I was relieved to see that they looked just fine, no different than when I had left them earlier in the day. They were huddled around a small short-wave radio, saying nothing, but moving to make room for me to sit next to them. They appeared stunned and were furiously working the radio to pick up clear stations. They tried BBC, then VOA, then Radio Cali and Radio Bogota. At each stop on the dial, brief bursts of news came through: shots in Dallas, Texas; the President was in a hospital; then Air Force One was taking off for Washington, D. C. We didn’t connect the dots. At one point, the front door opened and plates of food and coffee were silently slipped in to us. No faces, just extended arms.
Before midnight, there was a gentle knock on the door. It was the Mayor, asking if we might take a moment to step outside. Upon doing so, it became clear that the entire town of La Plata was out there. The Mayor, hesitant and clearing his throat for what must have been a long minute before finally reading a Proclamation, expressing a deep and profound sorrow on the part of every citizen in La Plata for the incomprehensible news which ”the sons of John F. Kennedy now had to bear”.
The three of us still had not understood fully what had happened. We stood there rather bewildered. Then, Dona Lucia Perez, a woman of very limited means that lived down the street, stepped forward. She asked us to look back and upwards to our front door. There, stretched above it was an American flag. To make sure we could see it in the darkness, everyone who had a flashlight put their beams onto it. The effect of all those lights in that mid-night environment was rather surreal.
It was at this point that our denial finally gave way to the inevitable and we connected the dots: the man who with one simple sentence: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” had compelled us to reach into the unknown was no longer with us.
My site partners entrusted this flag to me. It is 5.7’ x 5.7’ in dimensions, made of rayon. Where Dona Lucia obtained the materials to stitch the flag together without a sewing machine by the dim light of candles, and how she knew it had to have 13 stripes and 50 white stars on a field of blue in the upper left-hand corner, I never knew—nor asked. Over the next 18 months of my assignment in La Plata, I became part of her eight children household. Whenever there was meat on the table, it went first to her beloved husband, Don Luis, a one-eyed itinerant day-laborer—and none of us complained. I flew it from the front door of our home in Washington, D. C. every Memorial Day, July 4th, Veterans Day, etc. and often take it to reunions of our Peace Corps Group. In spite of its exposure to wind, sun and sudden thunderstorms over the past 60+ years, it has never required any repairs. When I see it, this flag reminds me of JFK’s comment that “the burden of a long twilight struggle is ever with us, its outcome always uncertain, painful and costly.”
Jerry Norris was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Colombia 1963-65) where he developed agricultural cooperatives in rural areas of the country. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked in PC/W in its Public Affairs Office, and as Acting Director for its Office of Private and International Organizations.