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Back to the Sea

A look at the Kennedy ties to the brine in these classic images and an excerpt from a new book

Photos by Hy Peskin -

Almost all of my favorite memories (so far) involve a boat and the water, but there is one notable exception. It was Easter weekend 1998, and I was flying at about 1,000 feet, over breaking surf, green fields, an old graveyard.

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I was in the backseat of John Kennedy Jr.’s Buckeye ultralight — essentially an open go-cart tethered to a parachute and propelled by a large fan — as he flew us all around Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. My brother Hamilton and I were John and Carolyn’s houseguests that weekend, and when we all stood in a field on Saturday morning, eyeing John’s flying contraption, I was the only one who wanted to go up with him. In fact, I couldn’t wait.

The weather was overcast and cool as we took off from the field, powered by a 65-hp engine that sounded a lot like a lawn mower. The air rushed around us — the Buckeye has an open frame that lets you feel like you’re flying — and we stayed low enough to the ground to … well, the sensation is hard to describe. Everything beneath us was close enough to be familiar and ordinary, yet the distance from it, the unusual view from above, was a little trippy. It was exhilarating, of course, but there was something more: The perspective created a break with everything but the immediate. Pure freedom. An intense immersion in the moment and its beauty. And, yes, that God’s-eye view provided a little bass note, an underlying reminder of our smallness, our fleeting substance.

When I think of that flight, the beauty and thrill of it are always the abiding memory, though it would obviously be easy to let my thoughts go elsewhere — to be overwhelmed by knowledge that neither John nor I had in that carefree spring hour; to look back and realize that he and Carolyn and her sister would die flying into the waters beneath us within two years. To not go there, to not follow the moment out to a heartbreaking ending off that same shore, is a testament to what that little flight meant to me. It has stayed magic and hopeful. It has stayed what it was.

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The wonderful photos in this feature were shot by Hy Peskin in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, just after Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy announced their engagement. Great photography of a certain kind stops time, preserves a souvenir of a second, makes it possible — fleetingly — to not follow a moment, or a life story, onward to tragic conclusions.

Instead, here they are now: Jackie and John — young, in love and enjoying a weekend with family. Of course, there are things going on off-camera. (Peskin is recording it for Life magazine, after all.) But in these captured instants, they are still two beautiful and powerful young people — sailing, smiling, walking on a beach. Their khaki shorts are rumpled, their legs tanned. There is sand between their toes. It is June 1953.

The sinking of his PT boat and his Purple Heart are a decade behind Kennedy at this moment. He is a third-term congressman, four years from the birth of his first child, Carolyn, and from winning the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage. Kennedy is seven years from becoming a father for the second time, with the birth of John Jr., and a mere eight years from becoming sworn in as the 35th president of the United States.

He doesn’t know that he’ll establish the Peace Corps, negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis, give his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech at the Berlin Wall, lead us deeper into Vietnam, propose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He doesn’t know that in a little more than 10 years, an assassin with a bullet will put an end to his life and extinguish something in our nation’s spirit. Kennedy will be dead at 46.

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And so it is a gift to stop time and remember what we choose. That moment. The salt in the air. The sound of seagulls and surf. The future — mythical Camelot — still stretching out brightly, still overflowing with hope and possibilities.

See related article:

- On the wind

July 2014 issue