“Ask Not . . . ” by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia)

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

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

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. He currently serves as the Director for Hudson Institute’s Center for Science in Public Policy in Washington, D. C.

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  • We all remember exactly where we were on that day in November. It changed the landscape of our country and of our perceptions.

    Jerry’s compelling story brought all of the feelings of that day and the days that followed into a deeper understanding of what changes occurred in our lives.

    I am deeply grateful to him.

    Vivian Mullican PCMO Kazakhstan and Cape Verde

  • Jerry: Very well done and extremely moving. I hope you fly your flag today.
    Marty Ganzglass Somalia 1966-1968

  • I was awakened early in the morning by the arrival of the houseboy of a British doctor who lived in Sakol Nakorn, the town in northeast Thailand where I was teaching, bearing the terrible news, and his words of sympathy, and a bottle of scotch. It was hard to absorb that this had happened on the other side of the world. Dr. Mason’s short-wave radio was the most up-to-the-minute news source, but the news spread quickly through the community. When I left to take the bus to a neighboring town to meet and commiserate with other PCVs, a young man working at the bus station asked me why I was making the trip, and when I told him of President Kennedy’s death, he burst into tears. For a man to weep in public was something very rare: I still hold that image in my memory. JFK was indeed a world leader of the era.

  • The people of many of the countries PCVs were sent continued to revere JFK after his untimely death in 1963. When I was a new volunteer in the Andes of Peru in November 1964, I was surprised to be invited to a special Mass in Quillabamba where I was traveling. The ceremony commemorated the one year anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

  • In India also, where it was already Friday the 23rd of November morning, our neighbor who was a school teacher, and his children came to our door with tears in their eyes. They had just heard in All India Radio that the our President had died.
    My first thought was that Zakir Husain, India’s President had died—since they were sobbing and talking in the local language, Kannarese, it was difficult to understand their message—-but they insisted that “your President” is dead

    In confusion I turned on the Voice of America on our short wave radio and the voice said, “the President died in the tenth month of his third year in office”—that’s when it hit me that our hero, President Kennedy, was in his third year in office!!
    I shouted to my site mate, Geordie, President Kennedy is dead”. Together we listened to the full VOA newscast and learned of his assignation

    That day the Government of India ordered a three day mourning period for. India’s,and poor people’s in all nations, friend—President John F Kennedy
    Throughout the vast and great nation of India, flags flew at half mast until Kennedy’s funeral, shops and offices closed through Monday and official mourning ceremonies were held in all major cities. Only Ghandi,and later Nehru received such honors!!

    For at least five years millions of shops, homes, temples and buses displayed together the photos of Ghandi,Nehru and President Kennedy, who had never visited India, but was believed to care about the people in the villages and huts all around the world and Kennedy’s Peace Corps was his most visible manifestation of that caring

    I was truly proud to be part of “Kennedy’s Peace Corps—and Lo these many many years later, still am

  • A memory….

    White faces appeared in the aisles of the Asmara, Eritrea movie theater, whispering “Peace Corps?” Those of us who responded gathered in the lobby and then walked in silence to the nearby apartment of one of the volunteers.

    “Is President Kennedy dead?” we wondered as we heard scratchy soundbites from VOA reports about Parkland Hospital. The next morning, black bunting and half-mast flags confirmed our worst fears. We shared our grief with students and friends, unable to view newsreel footage of these events for the next year or so. Paradoxically, our reading and the still photos from afar made it all seem more immediate.

    I remember most vividly how hard I worked over the months that followed the assassination. I wanted to do what I could, then and for the rest of my life, to honor this man’s memory.

  • I was still 5 years out from starting my PC time in Ethiopia. Stunned and a bit disoriented, but still being in community college, did not yet have much of a global view, though knew someday I’d be in the PC.
    The posting and comments reflect what a dearth of national leadership with humaneness we have had since JFK time. Some have come close. To hear stories the impact of his death had on host country nationals speaks volumes of JFK. Thanks all for your post and comments. Feeling the wound in my heart all over again.

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