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Bob Mondello Remembers Columbus Day 1963, And A Visit To Camelot

Oct 14, 2013
Originally published on October 15, 2013 9:24 am

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy hosted a Columbus Day ceremony in the Rose Garden, and I was there. Fourteen-year-old me, with my family. This was a fluke. The President had cracked a politically uncool Mafia joke a few days before. Not wanting to offend Italian-American voters, the White House quickly mounted a charm offensive — inviting government workers like my dad, with Italian surnames like Mondello, to celebrate a great Italian explorer, with the president himself.

He was expansive, I remember, in his welcome, introducing a few prominent Italian-Americans from his administration and speaking of his own fondness for sailing, and respect for Columbus as a great navigator. This was, let's note, a comparatively innocent era, especially when it came to the impact of Europeans on the American continent. My history classes did not mention Native Americans much in connection with Columbus, and neither did Mr. Kennedy. Instead he spoke of "first voyages" being "the more difficult, whether it's going into space, going to the bottom of the ocean, building a better country here."

There were many kind words about an Italian heritage I'd barely given any thought, and a good deal of laughter, despite the fact that it was an unwise ethnic joke that had brought us all together. He introduced the Spanish ambassador, for instance, with the quip about Spain having "something to do with this voyage."

Years later, I learned that what turned Columbus Day into a national holiday was a push by the Knights of Columbus, a mostly Irish-Catholic organization, to combat anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic) prejudice in the 1930s.

None of this was mentioned that Columbus Day, though. Everybody was just pleased to be celebrating on a beautiful afternoon. Especially when he mentioned going upstairs to a reception.

This is the part my mom was excited about. The invitation had mentioned a reception with Mrs. Kennedy, which she figured was as close as we'd ever get to Camelot. So we trooped upstairs while the president went to his office. I remember a table filled with tiny cakes — barely a mouthful each — and secret service guys watching me and my brother and sister like hawks (probably so we wouldn't swipe spoons that said "White House" on them).

Mrs. Kennedy didn't show, so after a while my folks gathered up the family and we headed off across the White House lawn to our car (I don't remember there being a fence back then) only to be stopped halfway across by a familiar voice behind us: The president, now in shirt-sleeves.

"I've escaped," he grinned at Dad, "ducked out a side door."

We looked back and sure enough, secret service agents came rushing out, panicked till they spotted him. Then my dad made introductions — my mom (the president remarked on her unusual name, Omah), and my 12-year-old brother Steve, and 8-year-old sister Juanita (who mostly hid behind Dad).

And I, at 14 on the White House lawn, had what I now think of as my "Clinton moment," getting to shake President Kennedy's hand. He was about my dad's age, but looked much older close-up — skin tanned and crinkled from all that sailing.

Most of the other details of that day faded from my memory long ago — at least until NPR's librarians found the tapes recently. Tapes that reminded me of J.F.K.'s offhand grace — which I now recognize as a politician's gift — and the casual way that in the Rose Garden on that Columbus Day, he had made everything so upbeat and hopeful — with the White House a safe harbor we might all return to.

"We're going to do this every year," he'd beamed.

But that, of course, was not to be. Six weeks later, he was gone, claimed by an assassin's bullet. And that American voyage, that to my young eyes had briefly promised a glimpse of Camelot — that first voyage, always the most difficult — got a lot harder.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that commemorates both a voyage and a voyager. Our movie critic, Bob Mondello, says he's never seen a good film about Columbus' voyage, but he has other reasons to think fondly about this day.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, President Kennedy hosted a ceremony in the Rose Garden and I was there, 14-year-old me with my family. This was a fluke. The president had cracked a politically uncool mafia joke a few days before. Not wanting to offend Italian-American voters, the White House quickly mounted a charm offensive, inviting government workers like my dad, with Italian surnames like Mondello, to celebrate a great Italian explorer with the president himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY: I want to express a very warm welcome to all of you to the White House. I can't think of any group that are more welcomed here today. We're particularly glad to salute you on Columbus Day. I think Columbus has been a fascinating figure to me for many reasons, but probably because of his extraordinary skill as a navigator.

MONDELLO: Now, this was a comparatively innocent era, especially when it came to the impact of Europeans on the American continent. My history classes did not mention Native Americans much in connection with Columbus, and neither did Mr. Kennedy. He talked about being a sailor himself, but mostly used the moment to look forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KENNEDY: The first voyages, as all of us know, are the more difficult whether it's going into space, going to the bottom of the ocean, building a better country here. And I'm glad to welcome all of the successes of Christopher Columbus. And you do not have to be of Italian extraction to be able claim that inheritance. All of us...

MONDELLO: There were many kind words about an Italian heritage I'd barely given any thought, and a good deal of laughter, despite the fact that it was an unwise ethnic joke that had brought us all together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KENNEDY: I think we have some friends from Spain who had something to do with this voyage.

MONDELLO: Years later, I learned that what turned Columbus Day into a national holiday was a push by the Knights of Columbus, a mostly Irish-Catholic organization, to combat anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudice in the 1930s. None of this was mentioned that Columbus Day, though. Everybody was just pleased to be celebrating on a beautiful afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KENNEDY: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to ask you - if you have a few minutes - if you could come up to the dining room upstairs. We just have some coffee and...

MONDELLO: This is the part that my mom was excited about. The invitation had mentioned a reception with Mrs. Kennedy, which she figured was as close as we'd ever get to Camelot. So we trooped upstairs while the president went to his office. I remember a table filled with tiny cakes - barely a mouthful each - and Secret Service guys watching me and my brother and sister like hawks, probably so we wouldn't swipe spoons that said White House on them.

Mrs. Kennedy didn't show. So after a while, we headed off across the White House lawn to our car only to be stopped halfway across by a familiar voice behind us: The president, now in shirt-sleeves. I've escaped, he grinned at Dad, ducked out a side door.

We looked back and sure enough, Secret Service agents came rushing out, panicked until they spotted him. And I, at 14 on the White House lawn, got to shake the president's hand. He was about my dad's age, but looked older close-up, skin crinkled and lined.

Most of the other details of that day faded from my memory long ago, at least until NPR's librarians found the tapes recently, tapes that reminded me of JFK's offhand grace, which I now recognize as a politician's gift, and the casual way that in the Rose Garden on that Columbus Day he had made everything so upbeat and hopeful, with the White House a safe harbor we might all return to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KENNEDY: Father, why don't you come up and say the final prayer on this, then we'll have "The Star-Spangled Banner," and then we'll tell you how welcomed you all are, how delighted we are and we're going to do this every year.

MONDELLO: That was not to be. Six weeks later, he was gone, claimed by an assassin's bullet. And that American voyage that to my young eyes had briefly promised a glimpse of Camelot, that first voyage, always the most difficult, got a lot harder.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.