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Remembering the November day that changed everything

Each November, I take a pause before Thanksgiving. My memory of that awful November day 55 years ago comes flooding back. It appears every generation has a defining moment, an event that shapes and defines us. An event that changed our lives.

For the Greatest Generation it was Pearl Harbor. For Millennials it will be the attacks on 9/11. For my generation, the Baby Boomers, it is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The single event in your life that never really leaves you. An individual and collective memory of a generation that can only be fully understood by those who lived it.

I don’t dwell on the JFK assassination or mourn; too much time has passed. Every year someone – a newscaster or contemporary – will remind us of that November 22 day that changed everything. Changed more than a presidency, changed trust in the system, allowed cynicism to creep into our lives.

This president inspired us. He was young; he seemed vibrant, well-spoken. He had looked the Soviets in the eye and made them blink; he had told us we would walk on the moon. His administration told us there was more to life: they promoted science, art, a brighter future. When John Kennedy asked, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” we bought in. We were the generation anointed to change the world.

I was a teenager on that fateful November day an assassin’s bullet killed a president, and with it our dream. To say I was a student of history or a student of anything is a stretch. As I walked back to school from lunch on that Friday afternoon, the president had already been murdered, but I was oblivious to it. I was grousing to myself about having drawn a late scheduled lunch and being forced to return for one more period before I would be free.

My first indication something was wrong was two girls in tears bursting through a door into the courtyard as I was making my way back to class. That class was a gym class. Another mindless waste of my time. It was Friday and that meant calisthenics, jumping jacks, squat thrusts and running in place. Now that’s a life-learning exercise, running in place as hard as you can and getting nowhere fast.

As I entered the gym locker room, only a couple of other students were there. An advantage of the late lunch was you could come back to class early, change into your gym clothes in peace before the herd invaded your space. I was almost changed when the bell sounded and the mob descended. Two invading students entered and shouted over the noise of the now full locker room, “have you heard the president was shot?” Another student said, “yeah Lincoln too.” We all chuckled. I wondered what would make these guys make such a bad, unthinkable joke.

Before class started we would enter the gym and begin to run around the perimeter. A stream of young men jostling each other, talking and running, running and talking with no apparent goal but compliance. As we ran, the loud speaker crackled. It was never good when the principal interrupted a class with an announcement. As he spoke those words that President Kennedy had been shot and had died, school would be dismissed, a silence fell over the us. Only the sound of pounding feet on the gym floor could be heard. We kept running as if our brain couldn’t process the news and command our muscles to stop running. Eventually we did stop running and returned to the locker room. I don’t remember anyone taking the mandatory post-gym shower. We just silently changed and filed out. The unthinkable wasn’t a joke, the president was dead.

That night, I went uptown to meet a friend. We were going to a teen nightclub in the basement of a church. They had announced they would open to allow us to gather and talk about the day’s event. A chance to process the news. Youth ministers would ask how we felt. How could we put in words how we felt about an event so enormous, we didn’t know ourselves. Getting in touch with your inner self wasn’t in the 1960s vocabulary.

It was clear and cold as I waited for my friend on the street corner near the church.  A perfect November night in my small northeast town. It would have been perfect, if it hadn’t been for the tragic turn the day had taken. I remember the town was nearly deserted, hardly anyone was on the main street, the street was empty of cars. The only sound that broke the silence was that of church bell tolling a death knell. I think it was at that moment I began to realize the implications of the assassination.

More than a president died that day. Our blind trust in our society began to die. Still to come would be more assassinations, a war to fight and lose, presidential scandals, protests and anarchy to test our loyalty and more. Even successes like the moon missions would be more a product of Kennedy’s will than my generation’s accomplishments.

At first, we turned on our elders, those stodgy old men who told us that the weasely little man carried out this horrendous act alone. Then we turned on each other. Over the years we have divided into factions. We no longer respect each other, we no longer trust each other. I am not naive enough to think our current state of affairs is the sole result of the Kennedy assassination, but in retrospect, I believe it started on that day. The assassination stole our future. We were the generation that was going to change the world. God help us, I think we did.

Gregory Clark is a staff writer for The Coastland Times. He may be reached at greg.clark@thecoastlandtimes.com.

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