The Day Kennedy Died
by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962-64)
The most difficult part of my service in Ethiopia was the two year separation from home. In the present Internet era, it is probably hard to believe the extent to which we volunteers were isolated, out of touch with anything outside of Ethiopia. Air Mail from Ethiopia to the USA took about two weeks each way, so it was at least a month before we received responses to our letters.
Ethiopia had no TV or regular source of news, rather it was the radio, especially BBC and international editions of Time and Newsweek, printed on very thin paper that we received regularly and shared widely.
Of course, the biggest change in two years was a change of presidents. Though my parents were devout Republicans, my involvement in the Peace Corps led to a major shift in my thinking. Along with most volunteers, I grew to look up to President Kennedy as the youthful leader who would help lead us all into a better future. We heard enough personal stories from Harris Wofford — our country director — and Sargent Shriver, that we couldn’t help but support this president. At that point in time, we knew little or nothing of his faults or weaknesses. JFK to us was larger than life, our president!
To tell this story, I refer to a letter written home to recount events around Friday, November 22, 1963, which began as a typical, uneventful, working day. After completing a full day of teaching, the other single guys in our group of 12 took a bus to Addis Ababa to shop.
I spent time after classes, working in the school library, which I had participated in starting. Then I went home to dine alone. Two students who were then living in our compound came in and chatted, and then began to play cards. I played one of our few 33 RPM records on the phonograph one volunteer had brought, and began typing stencils for the lessons of the week, working on the dining room table. Darkness had fallen, and the light, even with electricity, was from a single bulb and was never good.
After about an hour, Marian, Camilla, and Fran came trooping in the front door, their eyes red from crying . . .. I think it was Fran who finally told me that the president had been shot and had died.
“My reaction of initial misunderstanding and disbelief was soon followed by a sense of horror. We turned on the radio and heard the first reports and rumors as they came over the air. It was about 11 pm in Ethiopia, just seven hours ahead of time at home. One of the students, Damene, made tea, and we all sat, silently stunned, in a circle. The Linmans (our married couple) soon came and joined our speechless group, which then included all the Americans left in Debre Berhan for the weekend. A few students joined us and sat silently. The radio continued to repeat the news, so often that we began to believe it. A little over an hour later, everyone went home and I continued to listen to NBC for a few more hours.”
“My radio kept us clearly up to date. I heard the entire funeral at night. Before his departure on Sunday, the emperor gave a glowing eulogy in Amharic to all Ethiopian people.”
Ethiopian officials in Debre Berhan paid a pre-announced visit to our assembled group of local Peace Corps Volunteers to deliver to us, as representatives of America, their messages of grief and shock. “By order of President Johnson and of the Emperor, there was no work for us on Monday. We were silent.”
I wrote: “The custom here is to show grief openly and emphatically, to cry and to beat the breast when a person dies. The silence of Americans, of the thronging crowds in Washington and of Mrs. Kennedy at her husband’s funeral, will never be understood by my students or their elders. We Americans are strange. We have adopted wearing small black ribbons as signs of mourning, a slight modification of what the custom here is. (I have a student who has been wearing a huge black armband in memory of his father for over a year now!) But mainly, we have been silent.”
Life went on, but so much had changed. We were largely unaware of the increased involvement of the USA in Vietnam, which would boil over with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that came just after our time returning home. The Peace Corps did not take the place of military service, and in those days of the draft, our service simply delayed what seemed to be inevitable.
Some changes had taken place in my family of origin while I was away. My sister Clara was married when I left, and, after a miscarriage, was divorced when I got home. My sister Peg had two young daughters when I left and three young daughters when I returned home. My sister Steph was doing OK.
In 1962, most of us were fans of music of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and, of course, Elvis. In 1964, all three had been replaced by something new: The Beatles! Other changes at home that took place over those two years included the introduction of zip codes in USA addresses in 1963 (zip=Zoning Improvement Plan). And pop-top beer cans.
In two years, we volunteers had changed, all of us, in different ways. We had seen the USA from afar and much of the time, it didn’t look so good. Now we were being thrust into a war that, even from our limited vantage point, made no sense.
Debre Berhan volunteers had made it through a student strike, and the death of our president. We gained a reputation as a tightly knit group, supporting each other with no significant conflicts among us. We had formed lifelong connections. I was lucky to have those two years of personal growth.
John Rex (Ethiopia 1962-64) grew up in Mt. Kisco, NY, and graduated from Bowdoin College. After two years teaching in Ethiopia, he taught high school English in Akron, NY, for twenty-seven years, married and raised a family. In 1991, he studied for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, including an internship in India. After his ordination, he served in Virginia and Florida, as well as a six-month ministry with Khasi Unitarians in North East India. Again retiring, he returned to the Peace Corps/Namibia 2003-04, and now lives in Buffalo, NY.