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Published:March 13th, 2011 11:53 EST
The Day I Saw The President - The Delicate Art of Memory Reconstruction

The Day I Saw The President - The Delicate Art of Memory Reconstruction

By John G. Kays

"When you find your own Topanga window, Look and see just exactly where you`ve been. Spend your time behind Topanga windows. Come out from the city and let the people fill you in. Your time is going much too fast, You`ve got to slow it all down or it won`t last, And what will be will soon end in your past by Oh, Topanga window, window, window, window." Topanga Windows-Spirit

kays family houston


Oh Menemosyne, Greek goddess of memory, guide me on my journey back in time. Help me reconstruct a picture long ago that has a deep meaning for me. A rare moment of a lifetime must be preserved, it must not vanish from the face of the earth. With clarity of mind and peace of soul, I invoke your sacred powers of vision that I might witness once again the rolling motion of transcendence, where perception`s window opens its wisdom pane.

jfk rice stadium sept 12th

The Elysian Fields are mine; I can see and learn the truth of the past. Imagine peering through your window pane and instead of seeing some white daisies you planted in a tomato-pastel flower box, you have visions of a real event from your life. The delightful images flicker past your eyes, like a Charlie Chaplin silent film, and you giggle as your senses unlock a reservoir of perspicacity. 

june 1962 ricky ribb

But this is not a movie, this bubble occurs in real time, just as if the past were the present. In a perfect world this is how our memories should work. My attempts to remember seeing President Kennedy at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962 come in surges of clarity, followed by billowing shadows. What is phantasm and what is verifiable recall?

35th president

The hurt and pain of life goes away for a moment when I remember the day that I saw The President. The defining moments of our lives are scarce, the disappointments are numerous. A singular, uplifting point in time for me, was when I heard John F. Kennedy speak at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962. My purpose in writing this first part (A Memory) of The Day I Saw The President, is to disclose for you my efforts to bring back the memory of that day.


My quest for buried memories from the year of 1962 was comprised of some order and logical sequencing, in terms of obtaining the necessary tools to break the seal of an ancient tomb residing inside my mind. I Xeroxed the definition of memory from my Websters II dictionary and studied the entry of memory in Wikipedia. The lion`s share of my endeavors involved visits to information centers.

Valuable data gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on memory includes tips for improving your memory, such as watching your diet, practicing physical fitness and stress reduction methods. From the latter item I came to the conclusion that if I was calm enough and in a friendly environment, I could meditate my way back to 1962, by blocking out all external stimuli, that`s contemporary by nature, and thus be successful in this endeavor. That is, I could sort of psych myself back to those times synthetically; a spooky ride in a Time Machine whirling back forty-nine years to the New Frontier!

Let me provide you with a checklist of my primary techniques employed to provoke this mystical time travel, reserved for only the bravest souls who dare to breach the far-reaching regions of the unknown. Recollections of family members can pry loose lost and found relics of the past. Photographs and phonograph records are essential tools. And libraries have books that can put you back where you want to go.   


At the moment I`m looking at the past through a melancholy prism of the Carpenters` song, We`ve Only Just Begun. This presents to me a problem that exists with memory, that changes oh so drastically every time you think about it. I see a memory as existing like a French Impressionist painting, where depending on the time of day, or how the light hits the canvass, it`s eternally fluctuating.

One moment a memory is in color, the next it`s in black and white. One moment it`s the very portrait of happiness, the next it`s a mournful dirge that makes you sad as Romeo. Is it fixed or is it fleeting in nature? We`ll never know in this life. Philosophically speaking, does a memory have a life of its own, or does it only exist in the mind of its beholder?

Another problem I recognize that needs to be addressed is we should try to view an event without the coloring of events that occurred afterwards. When attempting to remember JFK`s speech at Rice Stadium, I don`t like to think about his assassination just fourteen months later, since it clouds your judgment or assessment of the memory of Jack in Houston. I think you see it, we have to recall purely, without the coloring of history that occurs after our selected event.


Libraries are the best institutional aids for memory reconstruction. I live in Austin and this city has some excellent libraries, with lots of resources to refresh a forgetful middle ager, who may be past his prime in terms of sharpness of mental faculties. I know I can benefit from props, that specialize in mid-twentieth century history of the United States.

I used three libraries and all were useful; they were the Austin Public Library, the Perry Casteneda Library at the University of Texas, and best of all, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, also at UT. The Austin Public Library, with its zesty street person ambience, actually has a reliable collection of titles on JFK, and also provides an inspirational atmosphere for dreaming of the past.

Perry Casteneda has an entire shelf row of books on JFK, some of which have never even been checked out, such as Kennedy and the Berlin Wall by W.R. Smyser. It`s easy to settle into a groove on an end table and chair, with windows looking out on the college campus; a mood comes over you after a few hours and you find yourself moving back in time, when John Kennedy was still our President.

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History provided me with the clearest windows into my past life. I feel comfortable researching at this facility, and spent many hours here back in the day when it was called The Barker Texas History Center, in the late 1980s. The archivist was friendly and helped me with the photographic collection, as well as how to work with their digital photograph collection, that`s available online now.

My research target was Houston in the early 1960s, and I struck gold with some of the resources that were brought out to me by dedicated clerks servicing the inquiry desk. A few of the titles I got to look at were: Houston Theater Memories, The Fault Does Not Lie With Your Set (early TV in Houston), and A History of Houston by David McComb. The first book mentioned had a good photo of the Delman Theater, where I would go to see all day horror movies, such as Roger Corman`s The Pit and the Pendulum.  


A false sense of security can crop up if you begin to deceive yourself into thinking the ideas presented in books are memories. You gain a good amount of knowledge by studying books, but they don`t represent your own actual experience. The trickery of this, is the conditioning and brainwashing seduces you into thinking that occurrences in the books are your own.

Monographs can, however, aid in unleashing forgotten moments, perhaps by a picture in the book or a description of a place where you were when an important event went down. I often say I was at Woodstock, but I know I wasn`t, yet I`ve bombarded my brain with images and sounds of Stock and pulled the wool over my eyes. I must say, though, it`s a fun fantasy!

A. JFK Remembering Jack by Christophe Loviny & Vincent Touze 
Picture books on JFK are a dime a dozen, but this one contains a CD with excerpts of some of Kennedy`s speeches. Track 13 is the remarks before the Berlin Wall (Ich bin ein Berliner) on June 26, 1963. One photo is him with the LEM prototype, the lunar landing, from September of 1962.

B. The 1960s Cultural Revolution by John C. McWilliams
This one has a great chronology of events for the entire 1960s. The Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler is the number one song on February 17, 1962, or John Glenn orbits the earth three times on February 20th. Or how about this, three days after the Rice speech the Four Seasons debut with a number one song Sherry. This chronology has been my 8 ball to the past.

C. The Doors Of Perception/Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
Huxley`s vision of perception has been a useful companion to me for the past few days. His observations about his mescalin trip are relevant to modern psychology and to our notions about human memory. Every page is relevant to what I type right now, but my favorite is the notion that when we try to remember something from our past, we look out, when really we are (should be) looking in. It`s in our head, not in the real world anymore.


I will quote from my mother, Shirley Kays here, since her memory is still clear regarding that important day, forty-nine years ago. This is just to say that family can be helpful when you are trying to reconstruct an event from the past that requires preservation.

"The band struck up the familiar, Hail To The Chief, and President Kennedy strode up to the podium. The crowd in the packed stadium rose to their feet, cheering and waving enthusiastically. I was overwhelmed. He was taller than I had thought. He was more handsome. His red hair gleamed in the sunshine. But his voice, with the distinct Harvard accent, was the same. I remember thinking, as I listened to him, how it had taken civilization generations of refining and slow advancing to produce this magnificent man with his vision of going to the moon."

The first line of my mother`s email was helpful in reminding me about those beautiful, big Live Oak trees that grow on the Rice campus. In fact, I purchased my charcoal portrait of JFK from a vendor right under one of those gigantic Live Oak trees. Or that`s the way I remember it. September 12, 1962 was a sunny and bright day, typical of Houston, Texas. We had to park a long way from Rice Stadium, but we were shaded on our walk to Rice Stadium by the wide-spreading Live Oak trees that were so common to Houston. 


Photography perfectly freezes a pristine moment in time; it doesn`t lie but is subjective nonetheless. This couples nicely with an observation that memories are particular and subjective as well. A pleasant metaphor is that a memory is a photo in your mind. If you can`t picture the moment from your own private catalog, some demons, perhaps, are playing mischief with your mind.

Very few photographs yet remain from our family archives, particularly from this period of the early 1960s. In my mind this raises the value of these pics all the more. I will feature a few of them for you here, so that they may assume a timeless existence on the internet! Like putting an Apollo capsule in outer space! The black and white family photos are tiny too! Wonder what type of camera was used? Am thinking it`s a Kodak Brownie, but can`t confirm this.


An acrylic painting I did a few years back is an abstract depiction of my buried concept of Kennedy. Photos of JFK and myself are hidden by dripping dabbles and undulating clusters of paint, almost obliterates to obscurity. There, this represents ways in which our identifies can be consumed by the ravages of time. As current events pile-up on your life, what you once stood for becomes distorted and transfigured by powerful historical forces, some of which are nefarious in nature.

This is what happens to our memories; many of the beautiful ones are polluted by the foulness of a reckless chain of events, that tend to bend their original essence. An example is Kennedy`s policy on Vietnam, which was just to provide advisers to help in curbing the aggressions of the Communists. This starts to get out of control, even in the early days of Kennedy`s administration. It had already changed by January 11th of 1962, when Kennedy announces noncombat troops in Vietnam have orders to fire if fired upon.


Isolate your memories. Make them pure. Meditate on a memory in a quiet, peaceful space. Picture clusters of events surrounding the event. Transport thyself back in time, by any means available to you. Hypnosis, meditation, or telepathic transportation "it all works!" Remember, though, to not allow occurrences after the fact to despoil the puritanical instance in time that is the object of your affection.

You can, however, let events that preceded yours inform that event, because they did. For example, the Soviets put Sputnik into space in 1957. This influenced JFK to compete with the Soviets and start the Space Race, that he`s most well known for. So Sputnik can be considered when thinking about JFK`s speech. It`s part of the chain of history.

 But when I`m remembering seeing The President I shouldn`t think on the Cuban Missile Crisis, since that hadn`t happened yet. That`s a no no, since it had no affect on the memory. The challenge before us is to stay sequential; chronology is everything, unless you dispute the suggestion that history is linear. And you should write down your significant memories for posterity, lest they be lost forever. 

"My daddy is sleepin` and mama ain`t around, Yeah daddy is sleepin` and mama ain`t around, We`re gonna twisty twisty twisty, `Til we turn the house down. Come on and twist yeah baby twist, Oooh-yeah just like this, Come on little miss and do the twist." The Twist-Chubby Checker

The NASA Film of John F. Kennedy`s Speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas (September 12, 1962)


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