Nov. 22, 1963 – Most Americans born before 1958 remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news: The president was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. John F. Kennedy’s assassination stunned this country and the world. Was he the best president in our history? Probably not. But at that point he was the youngest and made all Americans, Democrat or Republican, feel proud and energized.
I was in the Clara Mass Hospital recovering from an appendectomy at 9 years old. While reading a magazine in the sun room, my new friend and I heard a commotion in the hallway and saw a crowd outside our room. We went to investigate. Nurses, doctors and other hospital employees were crowded into the tight space openly crying as they watched Walter Cronkite deliver the shocking report: Kennedy was dead.
The world seemed to be a great deal less complicated then... and maybe less evil. It wasn’t about being less sophisticated or more innocent, but the feeling I recall in looking back is secure, despite J.F.K.’s untimely demise. Time Magazine points to that fateful moment as the pivotal point in our history. I don’t know that I’d agree that Kennedy’s death changed America, but it may have been the focal point or better still fulcrum in regards to the United States as a super power opposed to an also ran.
We were on top of the world. Our public education system, sans the technological wonders of today, was the envy of other nations. Since then, those other nations have caught up and in some cases surpassed us. We, or should I say Kennedy, called the bluff of the Soviet Union and they backed down from delivering missiles to Cuba. Gas was about 35 cents a gallon! My mother was complaining that milk and bread were costing too much at something like 75 cents per gallon and 25 cents for each loaf.
We watched Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and Combat on mostly black-and-white TVs. Like the country song indicates, kids played outside and drank from the garden hose. We hadn’t heard of gasoline shortages, terrorists, or mall shootings. My brothers and I walked to school and the ball field. In the summer I’d ride my bike miles from home and back as long as I was sure I’d around to hear my Mom call us in for dinner. I can’t recall one instance of a child abduction although that must have been happening.
In a few years we’d be watching live reports from the fighting in Vietnam, complete with staggering body counts on both sides. A few years later Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy suffered the same fate as J.F.K. It was the beginning of a long slow slide into mediocrity for our once high flying and top-of-the world status. Later, our embassy in Iran was over-run and our diplomats captured. We even failed in a rescue attempt targeting the hoodlums and fanatics who dared question our sovereignty. By the 1980s our world was turned upside down.
Did Oswald’s deadly bullets in Dallas that long ago 22nd of November change the United States forever? I would say no, however they signaled a turning point in this country and perhaps even the world. Now 50 years later there will be memorial services and news programs while many of us recall the national tragedy of that day and time. And then we’ll forget.
Already the news is more about the current tragedy facing Americans in 2013: There are six less shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year! Oh my gosh! What will we do? Will we survive or more correctly will Macy’s, Sears and Walmart be able to recover? Sad to say that’s the state we find ourselves in these days — worrying about shopping for Christmas, rather than contemplating the message of Christmas: Peace on Earth, good will to men.
One more time: We enjoy the greatest freedoms in this country and yet celebrate by choosing wrongly. Many Americans — one poll suggests 37 percent — will shop on Thanksgiving Day. After spending billions on Halloween, a fun but totally self-absorbed celebration, we can’t wait to spend billions on the latest and greatest technology for Christmas. In doing so we forsake gathering with family to give thanks for our collective well-being, the slow but constant draw down of our troops in Afghanistan, our freedoms, homes, children, grandchildren and lives.
This year I’ll look back on 1963 and wonder: Were we really better off then or was it all a sham? I going with better off and resolving to enjoy my family and perhaps give them a sense of what all the I-Pads, Pods, Notebooks and Tablets cannot: Pride in this country’s past and a sense we can once again lead the world, and maybe this time into an age of peace.
Mike Tischio is a freelance columnist living in Union County. To comment, simply email email@example.com.