(CBS News) As Lee Cowan reminds us, the flame lit by a grieving first lady in Arlington National Cemetery still burns just as brightly today:
For half a century now, through wind, rain, hail and snow, it's flickered its solemn duty.
Grief and hope, made tangible in the glow of a flame.
Lighting it was the last public duty Mrs. Kennedy had that sad day.
Just where the first lady got the idea for the eternal flame isn't known for sure -- perhaps it was their trip to Paris, or later visit to Gettysburg.
Either way, author Robert Poole says she knew it had to be here. "She wanted Arlington so that President Kennedy would belong to the nation," he told Cowan.
Arlington's Section 45 wasn't meant as a presidential resting place -- after all, the hill is pretty steep.
But that hill mattered. It was a favorite spot of the President's. He had visited Arlington House, the old mansion atop that hill, just eight months before Dallas.
While admiring the view, he said something that was chillingly prophetic: "Kennedy just stood and drank in the scene and he said, 'I could stay here forever,'" said Poole.
"He's here now. He's got the view."
So much about that weekend was unexpected, but less than 24 hours before the burial, the superintendent of Arlington got a call that surprised everyone.
"Superintendent John Metzler picks up the phone, and it's somebody from the military district in Washington saying, 'Well, Mrs. Kennedy wants an eternal flame,'" said Poole. "And he basically said, 'What's an eternal flame?'"
With the clock ticking, the job fell to a group of Army engineers, notably, Col. Clayton Lyle and Lt. Col. Bernard Carroll.
"My dad had a way of being very cool under pressure," said Carroll's daughter, Kathy Rotsheck. She remembers it was a Sunday. Every hardware store was closed. So Carroll and Lyle improvised, using a Hawaiian luau torch.
"I can just see my dad thinking, 'Well, this will work,'" said Rotsheck.
But how was Mrs. Kennedy going to light it? Kathy's father had an answer for that, too: A simple piece of wire with a piece of cloth that was doused in kerosene. "Doesn't have to be fancy to work," Kathy shrugged.
And work it did. Bill Morris watched that lighting unfold.
A member of the Army's Old Guard, Morris was part of the grim procession to Arlington that day, and was later assigned the duty of guarding the flame, as a nation came to pay its respects.
"Oh it was unbelievable," Morris told Cowan. "In the morning, they'd open the gates and it was like a flood of humanity coming up the roads. Nobody was prepared for that."
Least of all, the flame itself, which -- try as it might -- wasn't exactly eternal.
"If you were assigned to the eternal flame, you had to have a lighter in your pocket," said Morris. "Every time the wind blew, it went out."
It was even extinguished by a nun who accidentally blessed it with too much Holy Water.
Eventually, the flame was replaced by a more permanent, more reliable system that lasted more than 40 years, until last Spring, when the flame underwent its first major renovation.
Although new, it's still the same idea those engineers had all those years ago.
"What do you think he'd think that it's still there?" Cowan asked the daughter of Lt. Col. Carroll. "His task was to make an eternal flame."
"And it's eternal! That means forever!" she laughed.
It may have been a last-minute addition, but Mrs. Kennedy's simple idea has offered eternal measures of solace and peace ever since.
"You know, one of the first things that happens in Genesis is, 'Let there be light out of the darkness,'" said Poole. "There's some aspect of that at work, I think, [in] her decision to have an eternal flame here. Maybe it was purely instinctive, but it, I think, has had the effect she wanted it to have . . . and then some."
Complete CBSNews.com coverage: JFK Assassination - Includes galleries, articles, and streaming video of CBS News' original broadcasts from four days in November 1963.
For more info:
- Arlington National Cemetery
- "On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery" by Robert Poole (Walker & Co.)