Remain Calm, Etc: Innocence, Interrupted
Posted November 21, 2013on:
Good Thursday, Widdershins.
Fifty years ago today, I was fifteen years old, and a sophomore in high school in a small Georgia town. I would have come home from school, had dinner, watched tv, called my friends and discussed the forthcoming football game and/or a trip to the movies. I most likely had my record player on, listening to “Sugar Shack” or “Deep Purple“. When I went off to sleep that night, it was the end of an era in American life as I knew it.
The following day, all was fine through lunch period. At one thirty, the bell rang and we filed into Spanish class. We had not even started the day’s lesson when the intercom crackled the announcement that the President had been shot while riding from the airport to Dallas. We sat in stunned silence and waited for more information.
When I was a child, politicians rode in open convertibles, waving to the crowds who lined the streets. People actually were permitted to run up to the vehicle and try to touch the dignitaries. There were no barricades, no riot-geared police on scene, just every day Americans waving to our elected officials of all levels. This was the case in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
While there was growing unease in the South with a President who had promised not to interfere with our segregated lifestyle, the hatred and bitterness toward him was considerably overstated. One has only to look at the waving, smiling crowds on the old news films to see that fear and loathing was a ways down the road in Dallas that November of 1963. Most Americans loved the handsome young man and his pretty spouse, and felt energized by their youth and grace. Most Americans signed on to his admonition that we could, indeed, do better. In essence, we felt really good about being Americans. Things might not be perfect, but they were on the upswing, and I am ever startled to read that historians consider Kennedy to have been a marginal leader at best.
Prior to JFK, American Presidents had been old men, and frequently old soldiers as well. Truman was the President of my pre-school years, and I remember almost nothing about him. Eisenhower, the hero of WWII, I remember as a bald old man who went golfing a lot. My parents told me that he had kept us out of war, and built the Interstate highway system. When I was eleven, JFK burst in to the scene, and my interest in all things politic began. Here was a nice-looking guy who was about the same age as my parents, who promised that America would be a better place to be if we only worked at it. Not only that, he was Irish Catholic to boot. (Cue the swoon from my mother and aunts.)
As I went to a Catholic elementary school, the JFK buzz was audible early on. Even more, it happened to be Saint Patrick’s school, so this guy was one of us. (Anyone who thinks that they have seen block voting just hasn’t lived until they have seen Irish Catholic voting – it really doesn’t matter of the candidate committed manslaughter – his name is Liam O’Bannion, and that will do nicely.) So, the school covered our little green uniforms with JFK buttons, pressed as much campaign literature as our small hands could carry, and unleashed us upon the non-Catholic areas of town, figuring that the Protestants would be reluctant to slam the door in our shiny little faces. Suffice to say, I was vested in both this particular President and the political process by the ripe old age of twelve.
Kennedy did not disappoint. There were some amazing screw-ups – the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the increase in the number of “advisors” sent to Viet Nam – but day-to-day, life here in the US felt relatively good. Further, he established the Peace Corps, began the space program, handled the Cuban Missile Crisis well, secured a limited nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union, facilitated the passage of the Area Redevelopment Act (which assisted states with persistently high rates of unemployment), and promoted the arts and music. He also lay the foundations of equality by prohibiting racial discrimination in federally guaranteed home loans, stopping segregation in interstate travel accommodations, and famously tangling with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett over segregated schools. Apparently his more conservative viewpoints had softened, and he was leading us toward a more just society. Not too shabby in just under 1000 days.
Investigations, commissions, probes,scholarly tomes, studies.and more have taken place since the assassination. The Warren Commission, Arlen Spector and the Magic Bullet theory, the CIA, the Mafia, the Soviets, the US Armed Forces, and everyone but you and me have been thoroughly discussed. I will probably never know, but like most of my generation, I strongly suspect that the whole thing is not quite as straightforward as we have been led to believe. No one has ever explained the whole Zapruder film (what?), guys at the train tracks (who?), the limo missing the street to Parkland Hospital, (how?), or misplacing the President’s brain (WTH?) in any way, form, or fashion that makes me believe that Oswald was a solitary actor. Even I can tell that the shadows in the iconic Oswald picture don’t line up properly. Something is not quite right here.
I have often wondered how the world would be had John Kennedy finished his trip to Dallas and climbed back up the steps to Air Force One. I honestly don’t think that we have ever been the same. The bullet that felled JFK not only took out a lot of innocence and trust on that clear, cool November afternoon, but created an opening for many years of violence and disruptions to follow. Certainly we have gained much, but a some of the American soul was lost along the way. At one time, this was a positive and hopeful nation, willing to work collectively on its problems. At one time, honest politicians had a tinge of nobility. At one time, progress was considered to be important. I was much, much younger then.
This is an open thread.
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