I’ve been spending the day doing history sort of things, but it’s impossible to listen to the radio, TV, or read any of my usual blogs without the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination being mentioned.
JFK’s murder was a big deal, even here in a northern Illinois county that had voted pretty much straight Republican ever since that bunch of disgruntled Whigs and Free Soilers met to create it up in Wisconsin. Oh, there were a few lapses, especially during the Great Depression, but Kendall County had been solid GOP turf for more than a century.
I was in study hall at Oswego High School when we heard what had happened, and what had caused several of our female teachers to be seen crying in public, which was certainly something different. And it was definitely a shock for all of us. We were dismissed early that day, and had a few more days off for the next several days. My dad and I were watching TV when Jack Ruby shoved his revolver into Lee Harvey Oswald’s stomach and pulled the trigger. It was truly a surreal time.
The thing I remember most about the Kennedy Administration is girls crying. When he was elected in 1960, I remember them crying in the hallway at school because in our (at that time) mostly Protestant corner of the world, they were convinced the Pope was about to take control of the U.S. And I remember many of the same girls crying in November 1963 after his murder.
The Kennedys had been different, far more different than the Presidents us Baby Boomers were familiar with. Harry and Bess Truman looked like those elderly folks who sat in the center pew at church, while Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower looked a lot like my grandparents. But Jack and Jackie? They were young, stylish, and apparently vigorous. It was impossible to imagine Ike playing touch football, but there in the newsreels were Jack and Bobbie and the rest of the Kennedy clan goofing around and actually having fun. It was their youth that appealed to me and to most of my generation. The President urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but rather ask what we could do for our country. He set us on a course to land men on the moon. And he started the wheels turning for what eventually became the civil rights movement.
In reality, the Kennedy assassination was the kick-off for what everyone calls the ’60s. Until Nov. 22, 1963 we were all still living, culturally at least, in the ’50s. With the events in Dallas, the nation received a severe psychological shock that affected none so much as the young people my age and a bit older. Our music changed right along with our outlook on life, reflecting a profound change that turned into one of the most turbulent eras in the nation’s history.
Vietnam, the protest movement, the Beatles, Woodstock, flower children, Watergate, the Days of Rage, Haight-Ashbury, the Weather Underground, and all the rest were to follow, but we didn’t know that at the time. What we did know was that a young, attractive President with whom we could identify had been cut down in a shocking murder and we wrestled with the idea of whether this violent change would change us. It did and it has.