Many of us are remembering where we were 50 years ago today.
For all of us who were old enough to have even a vague idea of the events of Nov. 22, 1963 we can no doubt vividly recall where we were when we heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
I was in the sixth grade at Maple Hill Grade School at the time. We were in P.E. when our regular classroom teacher, Mrs. Balon, came into the gym and gathered us all up. We could tell by the pained expression on her face that something was wrong, but she only told us to return to our classroom — to not change or shower, but to go directly back to class. We exchanged puzzled looks as we quietly walked down the hall and through the classroom door. Mrs. Balon closed the door behind us and told us to pray. Then she turned and left before telling us for what we should pray, or why we were to do so.
In 1963 we were still in what was known as the “Cold War” and having spent many “Atomic Bomb Drills” where we were told to hunker down under our desks for safety, we were naturally fearful as well as understandably suspicious. I believe those drills were the beginning of my generation’s long mistrust of authority. It’s difficult to trust any adult who tries to convince you that the same desk that tipped over if you put your geography book and dictionary on the same side would somehow protect you from atomic annihilation!
So, most of us in that sixth grade classroom assumed that the Cold War had suddenly heated up and we were minutes away from being blown to bits by Russia. I’m not sure why we thought that Russia was targeting Maple Hill Grade School, but at that moment most of us believed we would soon die – in our ugly white gym uniforms! But regardless of our attire, in our last moments we did what we were told and silently bowed our heads and began reciting any and every prayer we could recall.
When Mrs. Balon returned, obviously holding back tears, she told us the President had been shot and that school was being dismissed. I couldn’t wait to get out of that building, and that gym outfit, and return home where I hoped I might once again feel safe.
Feelings of safety were difficult to come by for a long time after that. Stores closed, no one really left their homes and televisions and radios broadcast news of the assassination all day, every day. I was among those watching the broadcast of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred beneath the Dallas prison when Jack Ruby stepped out of the crowd and shot him. I had never seen a real person shot before and I sat stunned, not believing what I had just witnessed.
If I were asked when I lost my childhood innocence it wouldn’t be when I learned there was no Easter Bunny, or even when my best friend, Buster the dog, died. I, and most of my generation, lost our innocence 50 years ago today when we learned the harsh reality that sometimes, for no good reason, bad things can happen that turn your world upside down. Not even our parents could make sense of any of it for us. All they could do was try to assure us that we really were safe, all the while unable to convince us that they felt so themselves.
That was my first experience learning how to live with the questions, with the fragility of life. If this could happen to the President, if this could happen in our country, what else might be waiting? What else might go wrong? Would things ever be the same? Would I be the same? We had to learn to live with the unknown and the fact that even if we did discover the answers we likely wouldn’t like them much.
We could have stayed in that place; that place of fear, bewilderment, distrust. But, although our world, our childhood world where our parents could make it all better, where the adults knew what they were doing, where we would always be protected and held safely, was shattered, we eventually moved back into the world. Maybe we were more wary, more wise and maybe we mourned the loss of innocence, but we went back out into the world.
We still live with questions about safety and trust but we have had to find solace in the fact the answer may be nothing more than to do our best to simply live, despite it all.