Anyone old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy can tell you where they were and what they were doing Nov. 22, 1963, after shots rang out in Dallas and the nation came together around the television set to share the loss of a leader and of a dream for the future of the United States of America.
Larry Berz was 7 years old, and the effect of that experience was profound and permanent. Over the years, the Kennedy vision of a vibrant, optimistic nation has remained a touchstone for Berz, director of the Francis Malcolm Science Center in Easton and astronomy instructor at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.
Each November he does a memorial presentation about the president’s assassination for students at Caribou Middle School. He can quote from the historical documentary “Years of Lightning, Days of Drums” and he remembers when he opened the Chicago Daily News on Nov. 21, 1983, and was touched by a stunning editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant honoring the 20th anniversary of the assassination.
This year Berz decided to act on, rather than just observe, his respect for the Kennedy legacy. He was moved by words of JFK quoted on a National Public Radio program earlier this year: “I hope all of you will join in a great national effort to build a strong and better America through physical effort, and through the contributions we can make by the drive and force we bring to our daily lives.”
These words had inspired Kennedy’s brother, Robert, then attorney general, to lead the national response to his brother’s challenge by walking 50 miles in one day. In 1963, he walked from Great Falls, Maryland, to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
“I wonder if I could do that,” Berz thought. “I wanted to rekindle in my heart what I saw in that movie ["Years of Lightning, Days of Drums"], to go back and discover something I need to know: that Oswald killed the president but not JFK,” he told me this week.
“Can I connect with my president, go back in time and heal my own heart? And if I succeed, can I give back to the community, to help others who were hurt?” Berz asked, recalling ordeals the nation has faced in the last 50 years — from the Vietnam War and Watergate to 9/11 and the attack on the Boston Marathon.
Berz told a local television reporter that he feels a certain obligation to the legacy of John and Bobby Kennedy, both assassinated when he was a boy, because “they stand for a kind of vision and drive and dream that I think is gone in our daily life and I don’t want to lose that.”
He was determined to act this year — 50 years after Robert Kennedy’s hike, the civil rights march on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of President Kennedy — events highlighting the kind of spirit he wanted to restore.
So Berz began to train, leading monthly hikes of 10, 20, 30 and 40 miles in April, May, June and July, with the goal of walking 50 miles from the edge of Houlton to Limestone in August. He formed the Long Distance Expeditionary Corps to promote the kind of adventure and exploration that made our nation great.
He was joined on his training hikes by Dr. Arthur Selander of Caribou, Greg Hamlin of Presque Isle, Nicholas Boggs of Portland, Jonathan King of Limestone, Ulyianna Michaud of Caribou, Charles MacDonald of Acton, Grier Ostermann of Topsham and a number of students from MSSM.
Lillian Costello of Milo, one of those students, decided to join her teacher for the 40-mile hike from Houlton to the University of Maine at Presque Isle on July 27. Initially a spur-of-the-moment decision, the 40-mile trek inspired her to tackle the 50-mile hike, in part to prove to herself she could do it and also to honor her great-grandfather, who is one of her heroes.
Costello was one of two hikers to walk with Berz the entire distance from Littleton to Limestone on Aug. 31. The other was Dr. Narayana Prasanna of Presque Isle.
The weather was miserable. Berz, Costello and Ostermann set out from Limestone at 2:30 a.m. in a support vehicle driven by Luke Shorty, MSSM executive director and one of three volunteer “wagonmasters” for the journey. It was dark and humid when they arrived at the Littleton Baptist Church at 3:30 a.m.
“Out of the blue,” Dr. Selander and Dr. Prasanna arrived, ready for a day of hiking. Berz was encouraged by the support, but discouraged by the weather and worried about walking so far with wet feet. “I brought eight pairs of socks,” he said.
The group of five was on the road by 4 a.m., cheered by Shorty in the support vehicle. When they reached Bridgewater between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., relief wagonmaster Deborah McGann greeted them with homemade muffins and oatmeal.
“I was excited about Larry and the students and wanted to support them,” she said, acknowledging she was tempted by the physical challenge of the 50-mile trek, but had not been able to prepare for it. She decided to walk with the hikers by repeatedly parking her car a mile ahead and walking back to meet them, accompanied by her dog, Millie. By the time they reached Easton, she estimated she had walked 15-18 miles, and she and Millie were both exhausted.
At the Francis Malcolm Science Center in Easton, the 35th mile of the endeavor, three hikers joined the group along with the third support vehicle driven by MSSM Spanish instructor Jim Torruellas of Limestone.
There was a festive spirit as they headed toward Fort Fairfield under clearing skies, reinforced by MSSM social science teacher Dan Melega, MSSM student Will Popov of Stratton and Linda Torruellas of Limestone.
“There was an element of freedom — of Kennedy vigor,” Melega said, calling the walk a philosophical as well as a mental and physical journey. “It was a metaphor for what you can do with collective action.”
People joined the walk along the way, offered water or snacks and cheered them on.
“It was very democratic. Anyone could join in,” Melega said. It was also an opportunity to see what you miss traveling in an automobile and to appreciate the lives of the pioneers who settled on “the edge of the frontier 150 years ago,” he added.
The Limestone Police Department had donated a GPS unit so MSSM students and other county residents could go online and be part of the journey, helping Berz achieve his goal of communitywide involvement in the event.
But between Fort Fairfield and Limestone the mood changed. Clouds moved in, hikers became separated and darkness fell. Two hikers had gone homem leaving Berz, Melega, Prasanna, Costello, Popov and Linda Torruellas.
“Everything loomed larger than life” for Berz as he felt himself losing mental and physical strength.
But he kept going, and with three miles to go he could see the hikers ahead.
He fixed his eyes on the glow of reflective tape on the backs of Popov and Costello, illumined by the dim light of Linda Torruellas’ headlamp, and struggled to continue. When Jim Torruellas asked his wife if it was time for Berz to quit, she said, “No, he’s OK.”
She sang songs with him as they made their way toward the final hill into Limestone.
“I was dependent on her faith to keep me going,” Berz said. “We sang ‘Do, Re, Mi’ from the Sound of Music again and again.”
As they neared Limestone, Cody Snow, MSSM residential life instructor, ran from the dorm to meet him for the last mile. Other faculty members appeared and cheered, “You’ve done it!” Berz remembers being animated by their voices, but he has no memory of the last hill.
When Luke Shorty met him on Main Street and wanted an interview, he could only whisper, “Living the dream.”
“I was done, nothing left, two people on either side,” Berz recalled. “I was drained physically, mentally, spiritually.”
Then something miraculous happened. As he trudged up the hill leading to the school, he heard noise — 130 students yelling, banging pans with spoons, swarming like a black tidal wave ahead of him. The whole school had come out to meet them.
“It was like coming back from the dead,” he said. “I felt rescued. This was real. Those children saved my spirit. I felt their energy like a thirsty soul.
“Then I fully understood what we had done. If we had come through in full strength, it wouldn’t have been the same. I will never forget that moment as long as I live.”
When 20-30 students raised their arms to form an archway for the hikers to walk under, Berz told Costello to take her time and savor this once-in-lifetime moment. He took his own advice and looked deeply into the eyes of each boy and girl.
“Every one was so beautiful. I looked from my heart into their eyes.”
They sang a school song, composed by Berz, and he was able to speak for 10 minutes on the significance of the day’s journey.
In a final symbolic gesture arranged by the students, a rocket that initially refused to fly suddenly took off on its own into the night sky, falling in an unprecedented course back to its launch site. It carried a glowing light on its nose.
The light reminded Berz of that Oliphant cartoon he had seen 30 years ago in Chicago. In the middle of a black square, a tiny light glowed. Beneath it were the initials: “J. F. K.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.
An earlier version of this story reported that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was on Nov. 21, 1963. It was Nov. 22.