Each generation has that “day when the world changed.” For my parents, it was the Pearl Harbor attack. For my children, it’s 9-11. For me it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
I was in the fourth grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary School (yes, really) in Austin, Texas on November 22, 1963. We were all really excited because the president was coming to Austin after the parade in Dallas. Air Force One would make the short hop between Dallas and Austin, and there would be a parade up Congress Avenue to the capitol with the president and Governor Connolly. I rode my bike to school that day so I could ride downtown to watch the parade. The plan was to let out school early because the president was coming to town.
I had a friend in my class named Scotty Haussmann. He was a good friend, and a good one to have your back in a fight. His mother was a beauty operator. I guess you would call her a hair stylist today. She got the tap to comb Jackie’s hair when the Kennedy’s arrived at the airport. It was a big deal.
Lunchtime came at school. It wouldn’t be long now. Everyone was talking about the parade. We ate and wandered back to our homeroom. Our homeroom teacher came in. Her name was Mrs. Sanders. I liked her a lot. She wore heavy eye makeup. Maybe she drank a little on her off hours and used the makeup to hide the shadows under her eyes. At this moment, the heavy eye makeup was dissolving and running down her cheeks with tears. She announced to us simply, “The president has been shot.”
The principal put CBS AM radio on the PA system and we listened for a while. It was a head shot. We knew what that meant. Most of the boys had been hunting by that age, and we understood what we were hearing. The school didn’t seem to really know what to do. Everyone was stunned. Austin was a military town in those days. We had a strategic Air Force base, Bergstrom, with B-52’s armed with nuclear weapons. There were Nike-Hercules missile emplacements on the hills around town. We could hear the big planes taking off. The school let us off at the pre-arranged time, as if the parade was still going on. I rode my bicycle home to our house on 32nd Street. I turned on the TV in time to see Walter Cronkite announce that the president was dead.
The big fear at that moment was that this was the beginning of a war, that the Cubans or the Russians were attacking us. Was this a decapitation move which would be followed by a missile attack? No attack came, but we were waiting for it. It turned out later that the shooter was a lone loser by the name of Oswald with a weird old Italian infantry rifle. It was absurd. It just couldn’t be right, and it spawned a million crazy conspiracy theories in later years. It was a bad dream that no one awakened from.
Today, with the advantage of hindsight and history, we see JFK as a very flawed man (like the rest of us). He was not a well man. He lived on a cocktail of drugs that would stagger an army mule. He had a dangerous macho. That stuff affects your judgment, period, full stop. He was woefully uninformed about the Cubans’ actual military capabilities. An invasion of Cuba could have brought unimaginable suffering onto the American people. But that wasn’t the way we saw him.
He was sharp and witty, quick on his feet with a great sense of humor. He was the essence of cool: he hung out with Monroe and Sinatra. He knew how to operate his own sail boat. He had adorable kids and a stylish young wife. He was a genuine war hero with great hair. Few men ever wore a suit better than President Kennedy.
Then suddenly he’s killed in the most gruesome public killing since the crucifixion of Christ. The world simply grew darker in those hours. The questions changed.
That was the day the world changed for me. The Kennedy’s were magic. They embodied hope and a new world order. JFK embodied a post-WWII enlightenment that would usher in a new golden age for America. Now he was dead and Lyndon Johnson was president. The magic had been stolen from us, and a darkness descended that has never been exorcised. In a sense, I quit being a child that day. There was no innocence to be maintained having been through that.