We’re now nearing the 50th anniversary of JFK assassination and there are already a plethora of stories commemorating the event. A Politico story reflects the “media tidal wave” and the “Camelot mania” which will simultaneously envelope us.
For me, there are only two themes: conspiracy and the death of innocence. Not having been put to rest in 50 years, it’s clear that conspiracy about the assassination will last until the end of time. The other theme, the end of America’s innocence, will probably end when the generation coming of age in 1963 follows Kennedy to the grave and stops remembering.
Until the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, my life was simple, pleasant, and full of prospect.
Mr. Metzgar, our next door neighbor in the summer of 1963, used to pay me half a buck to cut his 1/3 acre lawn and I was glad to get it. Our small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania was not exactly a hub of world economic activity but there were plenty of factories where a blue-collar high school graduate could get a job that paid enough to feed a family of four.
My dad worked in a Ronson cigarette lighter factory where he operated a metal stamping machine which, at one point, cut off his thumb. The job foreman did a good job of gathering the missing digit and packing it on ice. The factory did a good job of getting my dad to the hospital. The docs did a fair job of sewing it back on. It was misshapen, useless, and nerve-dead but we marveled at the medical miracle.
Lots of men, veterans of WWII just like my dad, were walking around with severed arms, legs, faces, eyeballs, yet were silent about the war. I’m ashamed now when I remember a former soldier in the neighborhood who had his face shot off and I always said “hi” but invariably looked away.
In 1963, our community was booming in the post-war expansion. Like my dad, returning vets got GI loans and built houses.
Mrs. Hunt, a “rebel” neighbor across the street, was one of the few women who worked in a factory and smoked cigarettes just like her husband and four kids.
With her son, Bobby, I smoked menthol cigarettes in a patch of woods near our house. In 1963, smoking was cool and showed lots of appropriately bad attitude – like Jimmy Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones.”
I said life was simple, but it wasn’t without conflict. You could get into a schoolyard fight without being put in handcuffs and walked away by the cops. I remember a fist fight I had in shop class where the shop teacher led the cheering section.
The best teacher I ever had, Mrs. Schmidt, cursed at us and smelled of cigarette smoke and alcohol. She was lean and had her hair done up like one of those pretty gangster molls in 50s cinema. Bright red lipstick guaranteed you wouldn’t mistake her for the Mona Lisa.
She was as literate and sophisticated as Virginian Wolff, one of her idols, and tougher than a Parris Island DI. It’s a modern crime that such a person could never get past the HR department today.
I was 17 when JFK was assassinated and it tore through my world like a razor slashing a lace curtain. The realization that “they” could whack an American president undermined all the easy certainties of my existence.
Numbly, I walked home from school that afternoon with the public address notice still echoing in my ears, probably the beginning of what would resemble a life-long PTSD.
The newspapers of the time were full of stories about the end of “Camelot,” the end of America’s innocence. That was not being terribly melodramatic. The picture of the refined Jacqueline Kennedy crawling on the trunk of the presidential limo while JFK’s blood and brains were splattered cured us of many illusions.
Mr. Metzgar often bored me with his laments about “kids today.” Now it’s me boring you. I feel sorry for kids, for the confused country America has become. For many “kids today,” the 9-11 attacks were even worse than the JFK assassination, destroying even more of the simple existence we all crave.
In 1963, Americans were all on the same page. It was “us OR them,” not “us IS them.”