Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering November 22, 1963 . . . and the beginning of “the Sixties”

Shortly after lunch on November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Common Learnings class at Northgate Junior High School in Kansas City, Missouri, when we were told that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. I was in 7th grade. I don't remember whether our teacher, Mrs. Elliott, told us, or the principal told us over the loudspeaker.

My family and I had been gone from Dallas just a little over a year. We had moved from Dallas to Kansas City, Missouri, in July 1962, so I was in my second school year in the North Kansas City School District, and everyone knew that I had come from Dallas. I remember being needled constantly – especially on the school bus going home every afternoon – for the rest of the school year, and probably the next as well, about being from “the city that killed Kennedy.” Some of it was probably good-natured kidding, but some of it got pretty ugly, too.

Even as a 12-year-old kid, I had strong memories of the triple underpass that led to – at that time – R. L. Thornton and Stemmons Freeways, because during our 5 years there (1957-1962), my Dad had often taken me with him to his office at the Dallas Baptist Association in downtown Dallas during the summer, and we would take that route through the triple underpass when leaving downtown.

President Kennedy was inaugurated less than a couple of months before I turned 10. JFK was the first president to make effective use of the still-young medium of television. He held frequent press conferences in the State Department auditorium, and they were televised, usually late in the afternoon after I got home from school. I was mesmerized by his “performances” at these press conferences. Not that I had any understanding at all, as a 10, 11-, 12-year-old boy, of geopolitical or economic affairs; I simply enjoyed the quick and eloquent wit employed by JFK as he played cat-and-mouse with the reporters at his press conferences.

After the president died, Longines produced a three-record set of his speeches and press conferences. Mother and Daddy bought it for me. I listened to that album over and over and over. Today I can quote long passages of his inaugural address, as well as other speeches, simply because I listened to those records so much that his speeches are seared into my brain forever.

That weekend, we saw television grow up. From shortly after news of the assassination was first broadcast Friday afternoon until after his funeral on Monday, the three TV networks devoted 24 hours a day (and keep in mind, back in those days TV stations typically “signed off” around midnight or 1 a.m.) to coverage of the assassination and the events that followed (arrival of the presidential party, and the body of the fallen president, back in Washington; the arrest of the suspected assassin; the vigil around the casket in the East Room of the White House; the greeting of the world’s statesmen and other dignitaries by President Johnson; the murder of the assassin by Jack Ruby; etc.).

I recall that this coverage also included film of President Kennedy speaking to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that morning, as well as film of his and Jackie's arrival at Love Field in Dallas.

However, I’ve read where some people have said they remember seeing film of the assassination played and replayed over that weekend. This is not accurate. The only film of the assassination itself was shot and owned by a Dallas dressmaker, Abraham Zapruder, who sold exclusive rights to LIFE Magazine, which published the pertinent frames in its next issue. Neither the TV networks nor any local TV stations had access to this film – the ONLY film of the assassination – at that time. Also, I suspect that, even if they had, they wouldn’t have shown such gruesome footage that weekend, when nerves and emotions were already so very raw.

It was certainly a weekend that was a shared experience for our nation. Probably the only thing that came close in those days would have been the live televising of launches of our space missions, particularly John Glenn’s flight in February 1962, which was the first orbital flight by an American (two sub-orbital missions, by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, had taken place in 1961). Those were also communal events shared by people across the country in, as we would say today, “real time.”

Perhaps the most poignant and heart-wrenching moments of that weekend were first, the visit of Jackie and the kids on Sunday to the president’s casket, lying in state in the East Room. Holding her children by the hand, Jackie walked over to the casket, knelt down, lifted the flag that covered it, and kissed the casket. The second such moment came during the funeral procession on Monday, when John, Jr. (or “John-John,” as he was affectionately known) saluted his father as the casket passed by.

It’s significant that what we today think of as “the Sixties” really began with the JFK assassination. Yes, our nation had challenges before that event – the Cold War was in full swing, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 bringing it into full focus; the Civil Rights Movement, too, with the March on Washington less than three months earlier. But there was a national confidence and optimism that was shattered once and for all on November 22, 1963. Dissent, chaos, and distrust took over and dominated the rest of that decade.

That doesn’t mean that good things didn’t happen. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were enacted into law. Despite significant setbacks, including the deaths of three astronauts in a fire during a training exercise, America achieved President Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon before the decade was out.

But the overall mood of the country following the assassination and throughout the rest of the decade was one of contention, dissent, chaos, and distrust (the “Credibility Gap”). I must say, though, that it was a fascinating time in which to grow up. In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy spoke of that generation’s role in “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger” and said, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

I feel the same way about growing up in the Sixties. There was a lot going on – from Vietnam to Civil Rights to the Beatles to Hippies & “Flower Power” to a seeming epidemic of political assassinations and coups. Prime-time TV saw everything from The Twilight Zone to Dick Van Dyke to Green Acres to Laugh-In to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to Mission Impossible, and that’s just a tiny sampling of shows that are now considered classics.

And all of that dissent, chaos, and distrust that I mentioned earlier created a unique level of idealism – at once ironic and sincere – in young people that I don’t believe has been experienced by any succeeding generation. The true troubadours of that generation were the folksingers – Pete Seeger . . . Joan Baez . . . Bob Dylan . . . Peter, Paul, & Mary, among others. More than troubadours, they were prophets calling us to care about the plight of those around us, calling us to care about the consequences of our government’s actions, calling us to move beyond our own self-interest to seek the greater good.

This evening, I’ll visit the assassination site, which I’ve done at least every 5th anniversary since my wife and kids and I moved to the Dallas area in 1987. From 1988 (the 25th anniversary) on, I’ve visited the site at least every 5 years, just to be a part of remembering . . . remembering not so much the assassination itself as a presidency and the era that followed . . . that will always be very special to those of us who experienced it.