Entering the UK as Sir Winston Departs

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January 24, 2019 – Winston Churchill’s death 54 years ago today marks a week of vivid personal memories.

Sir Winston died as I was preparing to leave home for a three-year Air Force posting at RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge in England’s bucolic Suffolk. I was already homesick when I climbed aboard a Boeing 707 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport en route to London’s Heathrow.

My orders called for me to check in at Douglas House, a military hostel in the heart of London, where I would receive instructions for travel to the bases. I climbed into a luxurious London cab and gave the driver the directions recorded on my mimeographed orders.

The driver, wearing a wool cap and a frayed tweed jacket with shirt and tie, said, “Right-O, Mate.” He took me past Buckingham Palace, where the Union Jack was lowered in Churchill’s honor but the royal standard was at full staff. The driver was apologetic. “The Queen ain’t no better than you nor me, but she can’t lower her flag for Winnie, he warnt a peer.” Later I was told the royal standard is only lowered for the death of the sovereign.

I made my way to RAF Bentwaters on Saturday, the day of Churchill’s funeral. Ray Williams, the NCO in charge of the chapel where I would work, invited me to his family quarters on Woodbridge base, where we watched the funeral procession on a black-and-white telly. We listened respectfully as the BBC broadcast the voice of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who referred to my “old friend Winston.”

I was 18 and let it all flow over me. As time went on I began to wonder if Ike and Winston were really friends or did they constantly annoy each other by their differing views on the conduct of the war?

But on the day of Churchill’s funeral, my first full day so far away from home, I found comfort in Ike’s homely Kansas resonance.

Fifty-four years ago this week, Harold Wilson’s Labour government gave Sir Winston a funeral worthy of the savior of the nation.

But I wonder if some Brits also looked back upon him with mixed feelings. There is no question Sir Winston’s indomitable courage and soaring eloquence galvanized his people in their finest hour. Still, nothing was said during his funeral about his fierce imperialism and stunningly racist views, or his glorification of violence and war.

Even so, I found it an honor to be present in England as the Commonwealth said farewell to this towering figure Time magazine dubbed the Man of the Half Century.

And today I adapt an old admonition from Britain’s days of war: Keep Calm and marvel that you can remember 54-year-old events as if they are frozen in time.

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Cana

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But I mean that in a good way …

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Slow Down, Dems

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Santa and Jack: Keep the Myth

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John F. Kennedy had been dead 13 years by the time the first of our six adult children was born. By the time they cracked their first high school history book, JFK had long since passed from flesh to myth. He had become a two-dimensional icon along with Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt, and his passing was notable primarily because it was one of four presidential assassinations that had to be memorized.

For me, John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his sudden passing were intensely personal events – “the semicolon,” as one writer put it, “of my life.” Boomers will know what I mean when I say everything was different after JFK died. Hope, idealism, and a respect for authority, all dimmed. J. Patrick Moynihan remembered a conversation with journalist Mary McGrory after the assassination. “We’ll never laugh again,” McGrory said through her tears. “Heavens, Mary, we will laugh again,” Moynihan replied. “It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

I was 17 when JFK died and I did laugh again but the character of my youth changed. Before November 22, 1963, I enjoyed the protection of a close-knit family in a village that provided predictable comfort in a safe middle class cocoon. After that, my youthful optimism was modulated by the realization that horrible things could happen without notice and beyond reason.

My children always observed, if not always with understanding, that the anniversary of Kennedy’s death was a day of mourning for me. They respected that although, I suspect, it would have made as much sense to them to shed tears on the death dates of James Garfield or William McKinley.

And we have learned a lot about JFK in the 55 years since he died, including his chronic womanizing, his painstaking deceptions to hide his poor health, and his patrician inability to fully comprehend what it was like to be poor or a person of color in America. As Professor David Greenberg wrote this week in Politico on the death of former President George H.W. Bush, respect for the dead must coexist with the historical record.

Last week my 12-year-old grandson watched an episode of a television series devoted to museums and science. This particular program examined the logistics and physics of the Kennedy assassination to determine whether he was shot by more than one gunman. The program included a clip from the Zapruder film, which is not family viewing.

“He was very upset by it,” my daughter said. “He said he had no idea what it had been like, ‘but there was all this blood everywhere.’”

Indeed, this vivid Super8mm film of the president’s head exploding is one of the ghastlier artifacts of U.S. history and no child should have to see it (not withstanding the fact that it can be instantly Googled). The rosy Camelot myth of JFK is charming and endearing; the harsh reality not so much. But I will always be charmed by the myth.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a small children’s book for our five grandchildren, The Hot Christmas of 1962. It’s a fanciful story about how Christmas was threatened by global warming until it was rescued by two equally mythological figures: Santa Claus and John F. Kennedy.

Without reopening the debate about the reality of Santa Claus (Yes, Virginia), I will freely admit that there was no such person as the John F. Kennedy of myth.

But when I look back on my own youth, I very much wish that the mythical JFK still walked among us.

And for a few brief moments, in The Hot Christmas of 1962, he does.

And I’ll leave it to my grandchildren to decide whether any of it is real.

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The Hot Christmas of 1962

For my grandchildren and the children in your life, a story about two mythological figures – Santa Claus and John F. Kennedy – and how they saved Christmas from an early episode of climate change.

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