We savvy New York City first graders knew something was up. Sister Elaine, the fun nun, looked worried, and her mouth, usually wide in smile, was taut. We sensed a big, sore secret inside that she couldn’t let out, as much as she wanted to tell us. It was well after lunch, almost time for the bell, and our six-year-old minds switched to high alert. It must be the Russians, we whispered, dropping the big one so sneakily that there was no air-raid siren. Or, on the brighter side, maybe our principal Sister Regis had died! But Sister Elaine, who had once dribbled full court at halftime during a St. John’s game to make a layup—her black habit sweeping the polished gym floor and rosary beads flapping by her side—would not say.
The bell rang. We filed, size order, two-by-two, boy-girl, down the steps—no Russians, no bombs, no dead principal, but something more disturbing. The news had moved through the Catholic school in midtown Manhattan like a shadow among the black bonnets and long habits of the Sisters who were weeping discreetly in the lobby. Some evil power from a place called Dallas had disturbed the secure order of the building, and for the first time that I can remember an eerie uncertainty touched my soul. Our Catholic president was dead, shot, assassinated.
Assassinated. What a word.
Friday, November 22, 1963. You know the date, or should know it. The hope of a rising generation, which even a six-year-old could sense, was extinguished that day. The young and inspiring president, who had become so wildly popular over a thousand days in office, was gone. Murder had pierced our tight parochial setting, our family dynamic, and the seeming security of our familiar neighborhood streets. I had never feared much the test sirens or the drills of hiding under our desks, or even the sight of the Empire State Building, a mile away, which we were told would be the first Russian target. There would be no pain and no time to scream in the flash and boom of the bomb (though I never really thought it would come).
But this was different, something sinister that ate at your mind and made adult heads shake in sorrow and speechless rage. This would ruin playtime and dinner, pulling people together around their black-and-white rabbit-eared TVs, yet without a speck of consolation or comfort. There would be a signature drifting off of every conversation, and kids were left to think their parents were far from all-knowing or in control. They too had been blown off course by the winds of an uncertain world.
Those days of mourning merge in my mind with memories of our annual family trip to upstate Kingston for Thanksgiving with my grandmother and other relatives. It was there, on the big box TV next to the stone fireplace, that we saw the caisson carrying the flag-draped coffin, pulled by horses that seemed to measure the grief. We saw Jackie, the black-clad yet glamorous widow with two children in tow, and her sad composure as little John-John saluted his father’s coffin. There were so many moments that seemed beyond real, narrated in grave tones by Walter Cronkite, who would soon walk us through the Vietnam War and the 1969 moon landing. The latter would serve not only as a closing point for a turbulent decade, but also as a posthumous victory for JFK, who had set our nation on the space-race trajectory that would plant the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface six years after his death.
A few months after JFK was shot, the Beatles came to America, singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah” on The Ed Sullivan Show and lifting the spirits of a nation. The Fab Four were another cultural marker, a supernova that burned brilliantly for six years before splitting like an atom, letting off a light that still shines in modern worldwide media.
Yet in some ways, the assassination was the beginning of American decline. People wondered who could be trusted. The government’s Warren Commission Report on Kennedy’s death was questioned when it came out in 1964 (and continues to be). In 1968 came the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother Robert, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. These events, some thought, signaled a conspiracy of some magnitude. If the blood and bullets of the war on the screen each night were not enough, there were nurse-murderer Richard Speck, helter-skelter cult killer Charles Manson, Charles Whitman, known as the Texas Tower sniper, and the four dead students at Kent State to engender fear and cynicism in preteens like me.
“Don’t trust anyone over 30” became a popular conceit as my generation of Boomers came of age in high-school classrooms and on college campuses—sporting long hair and doing drugs, staging protests and riots. “There we were,” as Don Mclean would explain in 1971, “all in one place, a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again.” Another guitar minstrel, Phil Ochs, would observe, “We were born in a revolution, and we died in a wasted war; it’s gone that way before.”
There will never be another time like it, so compressed and etched on the mind. It seems, sadly, that the legacy of the ’60s is sex and drugs, scandal and mistrust, amounting to something like paranoia in our culture and politics. The idealism of the boomer generation has largely been lost. We tried to build a better world and failed, with Jesus Christ as our faux Superstar and Woodstock as our messy swan song. We learned the hard way, by overdose, divorce, contraception and abortion, that we could not love enough, and ended up losing trust in ourselves, in our nation, in the future.
Even JFK’s image has been soiled by later revelations of his sexual excesses. Yet on this anniversary of his death, it’s best to remember the idealism of the era that people sought to live out: “[L]et us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”