I was 12 and at Nipher Junior High School in Kirkwood on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Anyone who was five years or older on Nov. 22, 1963, will never forget exactly where they were and what they were doing on that horrible day.
Younger people who lived through 9/11 and watched the trade center buildings collapse into dust in 2001 can relate because they had a similar experience. Both events were burned into memories forever with vivid detail.
The difference is that 1963 was a very different world. There was still respect for the president of the United States and the Congress.
The United States was thriving in the middle of the most profound economic boom in its history.
People could let their children walk the streets without worrying and if your mom and dad weren’t around, the parents of neighbors took care of you. You also knew who all of your neighbors were and interacted with them often.
That had all changed by 2001, as Americans became more mobile, moving away from long-established family hometowns to different parts of the country and globe. By the turn of the century, it was a rare thing if you knew all your neighbors, or even your next-door neighbor.
But the early 1960s were not idyllic.
While people were enjoying prosperity, good schools, new interstate highways and jet plane travel, there was plenty of rough stuff going on as well.
The Civil Rights movement was pushing people of color to equality, but the retaliation was ugly. Police dogs were unleashed on protestors, schools were still refusing to admit people of color and the South was awash with racial murders.
The United States engaged Communism in Laos and Vietnam and American soldiers were dying again.
The Soviet Union was threatening to bomb us into the proverbial stone age with nuclear weapons. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought us extremely close to Armageddon.
All that good and bad made Kennedy’s killing murder more profound.
There was an undertow of people seeking a new world fueled by youth prior to his 1960 election. Kennedy’s young age, dashing good looks and beautiful wife, Jackie, fit the bill perfectly.
Although I wasn’t as politically savvy then as I am now, I was well aware that Kennedy represented change and a large measure of hope for the future.
He had made a huge mistake with the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He also dragged his feet on Civil Rights bills to curry the favor of the South for the 1964 election. But he represented a new and changing America, nonetheless.
On that fateful Friday when Kennedy was taken from us, I ate lunch in the cafeteria. After gabbing too long with friends, I realized I was late for my home room class.
I was running through the hall in a futile attempt to make the second bell when a kid running the other way socked me on the arm and blurted out, “Kennedy just got shot.”
I thought it was some kind of a sick joke but when I scurried through the door and saw the long faces of my classmates and teacher, I knew something was terribly wrong.
My teacher, Mrs. Summa, did not admonish my lateness. She had been waiting for me before she made the announcement.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she said, “Class, President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas.”
This caused a collective moan, with the exception of one kid who started laughing and applauding. He shut up when 30 pairs of young eyes swiveled to his desk and let him know this was no time for politics.
Within minutes, our principal, Mr. Beltz, came on the intercom and informed us that President Kennedy was dead. We all sat there in stunned silence for about five minutes and the only noise came from Mrs. Summa, who couldn’t stop crying.
She didn’t even begin to attempt teaching our latest English and Social Studies lessons. We all just talked about the situation for two hours as we waited for the final bell.
I walked straight home and my mom was in the living room transfixed on our old, black and white Magnavox television. I went across the street to my buddy’s house and it was the same scenario.
I went back home and my dad was there, having come home early from work. For the next four days all we did was watch history unfold on TV.
It was the first time news television had taken over the airwaves, but few complained.
We spent all day Saturday listening about Lee Harvey Oswald’s life and the investigation.
It got worse around noon on Sunday, when we watched Jack Ruby walk up to Oswald inside the Dallas police station and shoot him in the stomach on live TV, another dubious first. Oswald would die shortly thereafter.
Monday was declared a national day of mourning by new President Lyndon Johnson, who stepped into the position from his vice presidency with a steely resolve that kept many of us calm.
We spent the entire day watching TV again as Kennedy’s casket was taken through the streets of Washington, D.C. to Arlington Cemetery with one million people along the route.
We all went back to our worlds on Tuesday but there was a profound difference. Without even analyzing it, many knew it was the end of an age of innocence and that now, anything could happen.
That proved true in the following years when there were two attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life and another on President Ronald Reagan. Reagan came very close to dying and another charismatic leader was almost taken from us.
In 1968, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and he most likely would have beaten Richard Nixon for the presidency. Martin Luther King was murdered as well and it was all absolutely devastating.
The 1960s are often depicted as a wonderful time. I have younger people tell me they would have loved to have grown up then because we had The Beatles, muscle cars and California beach influences.
I tell them it was an exhilarating time because young people like me helped make the country more interesting and equal by starting a cultural revolution.
I also tell them about the harm Vietnam did to the national psyche, race riots, the stupid surge in drug abuse and the day John F. Kennedy died.
A timeless passage from Charles Dickens’ classic novel about the French Revolution, “A Tale of Two Cities,” perhaps sums it up best:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”