Travel/Cape Cod: In search of JFK

Travel/Cape Cod: In search of JFK

By FRANK HOSEK

My first recollections of President John F. Kennedy are of my family gathered around the large RCA console TV in my grandparents' front room. I sat on the floor while they watched intently as the funeral procession played out on the screen. I was a child of 5 and remember little of the tragic event that precipitated that memory. However, the solemnness of the occasion as the flag-draped coffin atop the horse-drawn caisson slowly made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue has stayed with me my entire life.

May 29 will mark the 100th anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's birth. One of the country's most beloved leaders, he and his family once spent a great deal of time in Cape Cod, Mass. There are few areas that embrace and celebrate the life of JFK like the Cape does.

Rose Kennedy, Jack's mother, is said to have told a reporter, "Our family would rather be in Hyannis Port (Cape Cod) in the summer than anyplace else in the world."

We began our search for Camelot at The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. Located on Main Street in Hyannis, the JFK Hyannis Museum is a celebration of his life in Hyannis Port. The museum's exhibits rely heavily on photographs and videos reflecting John F. Kennedy, his family, friends and the Cape Cod he so dearly loved.

As we entered the first exhibit, a slightly grainy, oversized wall photo (pictured at top) showed a young man in his 20s with sun-drenched hair, a deep-water tan and laconic smile dressed in summer whites. It is a picture that embodies a devil-may-care playboy of youthful vigor. But if you look into the eyes, there is a deep resoluteness, a questioning intentness that contradicts that easy- going air. It is as though they are asking, "What's next?"

Walking through the quiet galleries, seeing the family in ordinary, everyday events that anyone can appreciate, it as though you have been invited into their parlor and the family photo album laid upon your lap.

From the museum, we walked a few blocks on South Street to the St. Francis Xavier Church. A surprisingly inauspicious, white clapboard structure, St. Francis Xavier was the summer parish for most of the Kennedy family. The family donated the central altar of the church following the death of the oldest of Joe and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., during World War II.

Afterward, we visited the JFK Memorial, a public park overlooking Hyannis Harbor, just off of Ocean Avenue, whose design was outlined by the president's widow, Jackie. It comprises a fountain, a bronze profile of the president embedded in a stone wall and a charming view of Hyannis Harbor.

Of course, there is the famous "Kennedy compound," the residences where the family lived each summer. The compound is not a compound at all but a semi-private neighborhood of several homes largely hidden from public view by hedgerows and privacy fences. The collection of white clapboard houses belonging to the assorted Kennedy members are not open to the public and are best seen by boat from Nantucket Sound. Several local boat tours cruise around the bay, providing a glimpse of the storied homes.

The most accessible and tangible legacy of Kennedy's presidency is the 43,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, a national park that runs from Provincetown to Chatham. Walking the beach under a brilliant sky against a backdrop of the pounding surf, it seemed a very appropriate tribute to a man who loved the sea. Preserving the seashore for the future was very important to him. "I always come back to the Cape and walk the beach when I have a tough decision to make," he once said. "The Cape is the one place I can think and be alone."

Not on the Cape but a definite must-see for us was the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Located less than 70 miles north of Cape Cod, the library is adjacent to the University of Massachusetts Boston. Housed in a dramatic, nine-story building of concrete and glass designed by I.M. Pei, it sits on a 9.5-acre, waterfront site with panoramic views of Boston's skyline and Harbor Islands.

The exhibit opens with a 17-minute film narrated by Kennedy. I found listening to him speak of his childhood recollections and early career eerily comforting and disconcerting at the same time.

Presented as a series of multimedia vignettes, the permanent displays depict a timeline of Kennedy's presidential run, including excerpts from his famous televised campaign debate with Nixon, election night depicting the slim margin by which he won and his inaugural address ("Ask not what your country ").

His years in the White House are highlighted with documentary footage on the Cuban missile crisis, the space race, reproductions of the Oval Office and the office of JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

His assassination is dealt with in an understated manner. Entering a short, dark hallway, we were greeted by a few television screens. As CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announced the president's death, scenes of his funeral again played across the TV screens. The black-and-white images were a sobering reminder of that fateful day in my grandparents' home.

Upon leaving the exhibit area, the visitor enters a 115-foot-tall glass memorial pavilion. President Carter described it as "a great cathedral" at its dedication. Drenched in sunlight with spectacular views of Boston's skyline and the harbor, it was hard not to be reflective of the man whose life impacted so many but ended so abruptly.

Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weaver's Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

More information

John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum: jfkhyannismuseum.org

JFK Presidential Library and Museum: jfklibrary.org

Cape Cod National Seashore: nps.gov/caco/index.htm

St. Francis Xavier Church: stfrancishyannis.homestead.com

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Travel

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