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Everyone who was older than, say, 5 at the time remembers where he or she was. Everyone.
John and Jacqueline Kennedy at their wedding reception in 1953.Life Photos
How do you convey, in 2013, to people who weren t yet born, a sense of what America was like in November 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated?
It was a different place, you say to your children and younger acquaintances, struggling to explain that, yes, Kennedy was young when he was elected in 1960, but for a generation reared in the Great Depression and honed by a world war, 43 wasn t as young as it sounds by today s standards. Many men of his age had endured deprivation and seen starvation, had witnessed death in combat and inflicted their share of the same, and by the early Sixties were rearing families and building careers.
And yet, he was young, you add, and his youth showed in the way he eschewed the hats worn by his father s generation, played football on the front lawn of his family s home with siblings and colleagues, was married to a stylish woman 12 years his junior, romped on the beach with his children and sailed the waters of Nantucket Sound.
But JFK was not na ve, not unsophisticated, and certainly not untarnished. You have to acknowledge that his father had been ruthless, driven and highly ambitious for his sons, and that he d been a bootlegger, a philanderer, a buyer and seller of politicians and, it was rumored, even a purchaser of at least one presidential election.
The son inherited a certain amount of the old man s calculated approach to life, love and politics -- some of which served him well and some of which did not.
Still, you say, Americans who watched this president and his family were energized and inspired by his buoyant personality and energetic leadership. He seemed to represent the best of America as it embraced the second half of the 20th century.
When President Kennedy said, Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country, Americans asked themselves that very question. When he said, Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty, they agreed with him.
When your children and younger acquaintances ask whether Americans of that era understood what lay ahead in places like Cuba and Vietnam, you say that of course you didn t; who could have? You suggest that they consider JFK s words in the context of the Cold War and try to understand that he was speaking as much to the Russians as he was to his own countrymen.
When they ask you what it was like on that dreadful Friday when the president was assassinated, you tell them your particular memories of where you were and what you were doing. Everyone who was older than, say, 5 at the time remembers. Everyone.
I was in the fifth grade at St. Mary s Elementary School in Natchitoches, La., listening to Sister Emma, when the principal, Sister Immaculata, came into our classroom so quickly that we pupils barely had time to stand, as was our custom when sisters, brothers or priests entered. The president had been shot in Dallas, she said, and hurried off to another classroom.
We must pray the Rosary, Sister Emma said, and 25 sets of knees dropped to the floor. A little while later, Sister Immaculata came back, this time to tell us that the president was dead. Without asking, we dropped to our knees again and stayed there for a long time.
For people who were children on Nov. 22, 1963, perhaps the greatest impact of Kennedy s assassination was seeing the grief it evoked in the adults around us. I had never seen my parents and other grownups so numb, so horrified, so glued to the television, as they were all that day and through the president s funeral Monday.
I did not know who that tall, sad man from Texas was, except that now he was president. I did not grasp the double trauma of Lee Harvey Oswald s murder two days later on live TV; and most of the drama and symbolism of the funeral procession and Mass were lost on a child of 10.
This much I knew, however: that America s heart and soul had been gravely wounded, and that although we would eventually heal, our country would never be the same.
I couldn t fully explain it then, and I m not sure I can fully explain it now to people who weren t alive then. May they never have to fumble for the words to explain a presidential assassination to the generation that follows theirs.
Frances Coleman is a freelance writer living in Baldwin County. Email her at and like her on Facebook at www.facebook/prfrances.
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