Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kennedy's visit to Albuquerque was back in the age of innocence

by Mo Palmer

Where were you the day John F. Kennedy died? Everyone who was around back then knows. I was driving to the hospital to see a sick husband, had an ear infection, had a brand new baby, and my parents were en route to Tucson to watch the Lobos play. The game never went down.

I'll bet you can recite an equally exact itinerary.

But do you remember where you were the day Kennedy came to Albuquerque? Dec. 7, 1962. Pearl Harbor Day. I sure don't recall it - I was 19, and whatever I was doing, I'm sure it didn't have squat to do with politics.

The president was here to scope out Sandia National Laboratories after a tour of Los Alamos. We were swimming in the deep waters of the Cold War, the space race and the arms race. Now all those keen competitions seem distant and meaningless.

In any event, we rolled out the Indian rugs and showed him a swell, if short, time in our town.

Thousands lined up at the Municipal Airport - the little Southwestern building that did yeoman service before the big Sunport was built - to catch a glimpse of the first president to visit Albuquerque in 14 years. If my math is right, the one who came previously was Millard Fillmore.

Eager beavers were disappointed when a "huge Pan American plane" came to a stop inside the wire fence. It wasn't JFK, it was the press plane. This was huge news: The newspaper photos are all United Press International and Associated Press - no local credits that day. Then six helicopters arrived flying in formation. That had to be pretty cool. Vice President Lyndon Johnson debarked. I don't think leaders travel together anymore, but we were still in an age of innocence, before assassinations, riots and Vietnam changed the American outlook.

Also on board was Sen. Clinton Anderson. The president took time to chat with the senator's family and to shake hands with as many admirers as he could. Or nonadmirers, it doesn't matter. I watched President Clinton's procession when he was here, and the formal, official, magnificent power of the state - long black cars, flags, motorcycles - is awesome, whether you are a donkey, an elephant or Winnie the Pooh.

After Kennedy's short speech, the motorcade sped north on Yale Boulevard - if memory serves, it was still a two-lane street - then east on Central headed for Sandia Labs. Throngs of people lined the streets, waiting for a glance.

I asked my friend Celene Keegan if she saw him. No, she had just given birth and so stayed home. But she said poignantly, "If I had known he was going to be killed, I would have gone." Nicely expresses the shock many of us still feel. I mean, who knew? Who could even imagine?

Kennedy took a whirlwind tour of the labs. Their newsletter says he was the first president to visit. Forty years would pass before the first President Bush and future President Clinton dropped in.

From the labs, Kennedy proceeded north on Wyoming Boulevard, also packed with people, headed for the Western Skies.

In case you are new to Albuquerque, I'll tell you about the Western Skies. It was at Four Hills Road and Central, where the shopping center is now. It was round, with rooms circling the pool. The hotel-motel opened in 1959, to a fandango of fanfare - there was even a "souvenir section" in the newspaper. I wonder if anyone saved theirs. Every business in town published a huge salute: Darrow's Ice Cream, the Fedway, Jim Cloud Sales. An ad proclaimed, "Western Skies is for Everyone." A scenic room - one in the attached rectangular annex - was $8. Patio rooms went for $10.50. Pretty hard to fathom these days. Complete lunches were $1.25, while complete dinners were only $2.25. It doesn't say what an incomplete meal would set you back.

The Western Skies had an elegant lobby, all wood and stones and water, a gift shop, a beauty shop - and all of it was done in Navajo Modern style. It rapidly became the place for parties and conventions.

For some reason, it fell into disuse and disrepair. It was right beside I-40, which opened in Õ63 or Õ64, so I don't know what happened. Eventually its elegance became an eyesore and a felony focal point. It was razed in 1988. I'll look into that and get back to you.

But in 1962, it was our newest and our best, and that's where we parked the president. Almost all the rooms must have been taken, with Johnson, McGeorge Bundy, the Secret Service, the press corps and all the ancillary people.

JFK dined on lobster thermidor with a white Chablis, and for breakfast, had an egg boiled precisely 4 minutes, with bacon. These presidential meals were prepared by two French chefs who once cooked in the Paris Hilton. I did not make that up.

Post-egg, President Kennedy went to Mass in the Catholic chapel on Kirtland Air Force Base - it wasn't Sunday, but it was a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. Who remembers the hoo-ha about religion before that election? There, he shook more hands before returning to our wee airport, where he left to tour nuclear facilities in Nevada. By all accounts, he was pleased with what he observed at Sandia.

Notice the ladies in the photo, all decently decked out in hats and white gloves. It's dark because it was 6 p.m. in December when he left the labs.

His "bubble top" car fascinated people, but the car in the image looks quite open. Had he, and we, known then what we know now, history might have taken a different path 11 months later in Dallas. The moving finger writes and having writ moves inexorably on, and all that jazz.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, March 15, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:
(Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

This photograph shows President Kennedy and Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico during Kennedy's Dec. 7, 1962, visit to Albuquerque. The president toured Sandia National Laboratories and stayed overnight.