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Goodbye to our boy

By Garrison Keillor

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)

TIME magazine

After the initial disbelief, the hope against hope that the three of them might be spotted on some tiny island waving, the anger at what one could see as his foolhardiness in flying at night into hazy conditions with his wife and her sister aboard, the morbid thought of their last minutes, the aching sadness of it all, the archival film footage of the children romping at the White House and the little boy's salute and all the mawkish elegies on television, it was a comfort finally to watch the U.S.S. Briscoe raise anchor and put out to sea Thursday morning with the ashes and the families of the dead on board.

There was a rightness about it, as there was about the profound competence of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the divers, tracking the plane from radar records, scanning the ocean floor, locating the wreckage, bringing up the bodies, a great mercy. And now, with the U.S. Navy in charge, you knew that there would be some simple grandeur and decorum at the end. The crashed pilot would be released to the elements, and the young women who perished with him, and it would take place beyond the public gaze, without narration or comment, out on the sea.

He was a most romantic figure, a hero endowed with a legend when he was three years old, for which there was no precedent in our history, a hero sprung up from tragedy, the son of the murdered President bearing his name whose life was meant in our minds to redeem that evil day in Dallas. I doubt that there were many Americans who didn't want the best for John F. Kennedy Jr. And when his plane was reported missing on Saturday morning, although there was no precedent, no justification, for television to maintain the vigil that it did, there was a rightness about it. He was our boy. We had a right to stand on the shore and grieve for him.

For days the reporters stood their posts at Hyannis Port and on Martha's Vineyard, as the old photographs were brought out again and again, and the reporters looked into the camera to say, at some length, that there was no news to report but that it was terribly sad, terribly sad, which is not journalism exactly, but there was a rightness about it. The TV anchors and correspondents are like old uncles and aunts who come to the house after a death in the family and plop down in the living room and say, "I just can't believe it somehow." You don't expect them to be cogent; you are just grateful for their company.

We often accuse ourselves of being cruel and voyeuristic and of devouring our heroes, but this man was loved, genuinely, by people who didn't know him and weren't anxious to. It would have been heartbreaking to see him turn up on talk shows to explain himself. We wanted him to be distant. The press--even the ferocious iconoclasts of the tabloids--gave him room. He sowed his wild oats and went nightclubbing and hung out with inappropriate women, and nobody begrudged him this. Of course, he was lucky to live in New York City, whose citizens are proud of their ability to recognize famous people and ignore them at the same time. When he wished to exploit his name to start up a magazine, there was no objection to it, though we preferred him to be elusive, a little mysterious. We were glad when he slipped away and married that radiant woman, a person of majestic reticence who never uttered a word in public.

It was terribly important that he be adventurous and modest and funny and self-deprecating and charitable to strangers and graceful and full of life, and we believed he was, and we never cared to hear otherwise. He may have been all of those things, as so many people say, or maybe someone will come out with a book showing him to have been not exactly all of those things, but it won't matter. He was what we needed him to be, a classy guy, and the question asked at his death--What might he have become?--was not so important in his lifetime. He was a hero who lived up to his legend, and that is more than good enough.

His legend will grow now that he's gone. The pathos of this story, the sense of fate drawing him into its clutches, the broken ankle, his anxiety about the flight, the heavy traffic en route to the airport and the late takeoff, darkness setting in as he flew up the coast, the refusal to turn back, the radio silence, the nearly moonless night, the descent into the mist and the horizonless dark, and the terrible, spiraling fall.

"Show me a hero," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "and I will write you a tragedy." This we all know. Life is terribly beautiful. Life is terrifying. We can't go on. We must go on. We are not in control of this situation. But we never were.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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