Sixty years ago today ranks as the most shocking moment of my life

In my childhood, I heard my parents say the most shocking day of their lives was Dec. 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My children say their worst day arrived with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Survivors of the current Middle East madness will forever curse Oct. 7, 2023.

Pick a generation, and choose your national tragedy.

For me, and for much of my generation, the most shocking moment of our lives was the assassination of John F. Kennedy precisely 60 years ago.

Memories of Nov. 22, 1963 and the shooting in Dallas still come back like a haunting. Partly, it’s remembering the charismatic Kennedy. And partly, it’s remembering how innocent we were as individuals, and how lost America felt for such a long time after.

There was Kennedy, waving from an open limousine in one final, sunlit moment. And, a moment later, some shadowy gunman took aim with a rifle, and a wholly different America exploded into life.

In the long weekend that followed, Americans sat watching our television sets as if in national hypnosis. Nobody moved from the room. Lee Harvey Oswald came and went, and so did Jack Ruby, right there on our screens. It was a different kind of television than we’d ever known, and it would introduce us to a new kind of America.

In that innocent era, we still believed in the TV version of America, which had never brought us such awful news before Dallas. TV was hopeful; it gave us our national aspirations. It offered nightly confirmation of American optimism, which was embodied in the Kennedy family aura.

TV gave us sitcoms where people lived in homes only slightly better than our own. Maybe we’d get one just like Ozzie and Harriet’s someday. We saw weekly police dramas where all problems were solved in 30 minutes. We still imagined this was possible. TV wouldn’t lie to us.

The networks allowed us half an hour of news each night to cover the entire planet. Any longer, and we might get bored and turn the channel. In perfunctory 30-second stories, we learned there were unfortunate people in parts of the world who starved to death. In other distant lands, they put warring tribal leaders to death. In America, in that time, we only amused ourselves to death.

Kennedy was part of that landscape, our first TV president from the moment he faced down Richard Nixon in their debates to the regular press conferences where Kennedy charmed everybody with his grace, his intelligence, his wit and his intentions.

At his death, he was as familiar to us as anyone else in our living rooms. His killing felt personal, like a war hero friend who took one for the team.

The years haven’t always been kind to Kennedy. He was late confronting racial injustice, fearful of the political fallout. If he’d intended to get us out of Vietnam, it remained horribly unfinished business at his death. He was reckless in his private life, which apparently included Marilyn Monroe and a mob girl and a White House intern, among others.

Sixty years ago, though, we knew none of this.

If you were alive 60 years ago, where were you that day?

On Howard Street, which was the heart of bustling downtown Baltimore, the massive department stores closed early when the bad news broke. So did courtrooms and movie houses all over town. School principals announced the news over P.A. systems, and sent children home early, where they found mothers weeping as they prepared that evening’s family supper.

Where were you?

I was a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, walking through Cole Fieldhouse on my way to a required freshman phys ed lecture on personal health and hygiene. As I got to class, the news from Dallas was still unclear: Was Kennedy really shot? Was he still alive?

The instructor, some idiot with a flat-top haircut named Fluke, walked in and announced, with a sneer, “Everybody just sit there. I’ve got a lecture to deliver. When I’m finished, then you can find out whether or not the president’s dead.”

For his crass insensitivity, we should have tossed him out of an upstairs window. But it was a whole generation’s last moment of innocence, so we sat there in silence. Back then, we didn’t know we could stand up to authority figures. In the ensuing years of upheaval, everybody made up for lost time.

Walking across campus in the minutes after the assassination was confirmed, I remember an eerie silence all around me, as if someone in the dean’s office had declared a moratorium on conversation. No one had words for the thing that had happened.

We live in a heart-breaking time right now, with thousands of innocents suffering in wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, with the stench of racism and anti-Semitism in the American air. Sixty years ago, with the election of our first Catholic president, we imagined we were starting to put such bigotry behind us.

But the ancient hatreds have come out from their hiding places, unleashed and validated by leaders around the world who believe their personal power more important than their country’s welfare.

Sixty years ago in Dallas, America started losing its way. Today, we’re still trying to find our way back.


Editor’s Note: For more on JFK, check out the Baltimore Post-Examiner’s  archives.