22 November 2016

JFK, the Beatles and the Beginning of the Sixties

What were we doing fifty-three years ago and a day from today? As a country, many of us were listening to and/or watching Alan Sherman, Victor Borge, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, Bobby Darin, the Dick Van Dyke show, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Ben Casey, Leslie Gore, Peter Paul and Mary, Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Jan and Dean, Vaughn Meader, and Jose Jimenez (yes, I know, but that was then and this is now). And more.

On November 21, 1963, four guys did a gig at the ABC Cinema, Carlisle, England. In the summer and fall of 1963, a young folk singer was recording his third album, but still not too many people were aware of him outside of a small circle of friends (to paraphrase another Sixties folk singer). Some people might have known some of his songs as done by other people, but they didn’t really know him…yet.

The President and his wife spent the day in Fort Worth. A loser and lost soul spent the night at Ruth Paine’s home, a friend of his.

As the sun came up the next day, November 22, 1963, everything seemed fine.  A group called the Beatles released With the Beatles in England, but they’d yet to make their mark on this side of the pond. And that folk singer, Bob Dylan, was a long way off from his Nobel Prize.

And then it all went to hell.

JFK said, “If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's.” Unfortunately this was a prophetic statement. Someone was crazy enough.

There’s been a lot written about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I doubt I can add much to it. Some say it was the end of innocence for the country. The country went into a deep depression after his death. We started slipping waist deep into the big muddy. The 60s happened: protests, riots, hippies, counter culture, the Summer of Love, Woodstock , Altamont.

So where was I that winter day in 1963? I was a school safety, standing in a hallway monitoring student “traffic”.


“Stop, don’t run,” I shouted to some kid charging down the hall, wearing my AAA safety badge on
my arm. He slowed down, but I could hear him hard-charge again as soon as he rounded the corner, out of my sight. I could have given him a written demerit, but chose not to. I guess I was in a good mood. Either that or I hadn’t yet learned the power trip that the badge could give me.

A few minutes later, he ran back down the hall. I was already getting my little ticket book out when he shouted, “The President’s dead.” I dropped the book in dazed silence.

In class later, the principal’s voice came over the tinny sounding loudspeaker. “I have the bad fortune to announce that President Kennedy has been shot.” A collective gasp escaped through the room. Even Jamie Badger (name changed to protect the guilty), the class bad boy, was stunned long enough to stop making spitballs. The principal continued, “It’s unknown what his condition is, though it’s thought that he’s still alive.”

But we found out that wasn’t the case after all.

We were young, but that didn’t stop us from being stunned. Even the boys cried. Teachers tried to control themselves, they had to keep it together for their students. Mary Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) nearly collapsed in my arms – she was the first girl who’d ever sent me a love note.

That long weekend and week that followed the assassination, my parents and I (and my younger brothers to a lesser extent) were glued to the television, as was the rest of the country. LBJ taking the oath of office. The capture of Oswald. Speculation on the whys and wherefores and whos. John-John saluting as the caisson carrying his father rolled by. Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. Conspiracy theories forming.

So we watched in silence as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there were no psychologists, no shrinks to salve our wounds. It was like landing in Oz, only to find the Wicked Witch of the East in control in the dark, forbidding forest of snarled trees and flying monkeys. And we hung our heads. And we cried. I cried. And we didn’t know where we were heading on that cold day in November, 1963.


The very popular Vaughn Meader, who’d made a living and career impersonating JFK and the First Family, was out of a job. And we were out of laughter and joy. No more touch football on the White House lawn. No more pill box hats and white gloves. And somehow none of our backyard barbecues would taste as good or as sweet for a long, long time to come, if ever.

Here's a YouTube video of Vaughn Meader.

We needed something to buoy our spirits through the dark winter months of 1963/64. And for many of us that something came on February 9, 1964 in the form of those four mop tops from Liverpool and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which was most people’s first exposure to them. My dad called me into the den to watch and I’ve been hooked ever since. But they helped a good part of the country bounce back, at least a little, from the events of a couple of months before, with their effervescent sound, happy music and wit. So at least for a while we could forget about the darkness in our hearts.

It’s hard to say when one decade begins and another one ends or vice versa, because the zeitgeist of the times doesn’t necessarily coincide with the years that end in zero. But I think the Sixties really began with those two events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and it ended with Watergate in 1973.

Several year later, when I was in DC, I made a side trip to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia in part to see JFK’s grave (see photo). I know Kennedy wasn’t perfect and Camelot wasn’t all that, but seeing the memorial made me remember a time when there was hope and optimism and maybe even a sense of innocence.

So, what were you doing 53 years ago, if you were around?


And now for something not quite completely different: My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is in the brand new, hot off the presses December 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Get ’em while you can. And if you like the story, maybe you’ll remember it for the Ellery Queen Readers Award (the ballot for which is at the end of this issue), and others. Thanks.

Oh, and that is, of course, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast. And more on this in a future blog.



  1. Congratulations on your EQMM story. I look forward to reading it.

  2. I'd graduated from high school the previous spring and worked that fall in a gas station, closing at 11 pm and shooting pool 'til 2 am, eating breakfast and getting to bed at my parents' house around 4 am. All that as to why I rose the next day around noon, only to see my father crying. He was a big Democrat and a big fan of President Kennedy. Never saw him shed tears before or after that day. At 18, I figured the world was coming to an end.

  3. I was around. I was teaching HUCKELBERRY FINN in an English class at Corsicana High School when the school secretary came to the door and motioned for me to come outside into the hall. She told that JFK had been shot but that nobody knew any more than that. By the time of my next class, a study hall, everybody knew. The study hall as silent except for a transistor radio that some student had brought. We all sat and listened to the story as it unfolded. There were a lot of tears.

  4. Very sobering post. I was living in France then. My parents watched the news at the bar across the street. We didn't have a television. America was reeling since that was all that was on TV. My dad's Air Force base was on alert in case something bigger was coming, but we actually kept a cool head knowing America would pull through. I was in boarding school and we all stayed cool knowing our military fathers would handle whatever was coming our way. And the Beatles were already pretty big over there. But it was a time to remember.

  5. I was 9, and sitting in class, when the teacher went out, and when she came back in she was crying. School let out, and the flag was at half mast. I went home, and everyone was crying, and the long 3 days of shock, mourning, and solid TV watching began.

    Actually, since I was only 9, it wasn't nearly as traumatic for me as 1968 was: I was 14 then, and in shock as Bobby Kennedy (who I idolized) was assassinated, then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and then came the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, with all of its violence. That was another bad year.

  6. I was in eighth grade. I was working on an article for the school newspaper. It is like it was yesterday.

    I highly recommend Stephen King's 11-22-63 for anyone who hasn't already read it. King at his best -- and he really captures the era and that terrible event.

  7. I was fifteen. Like Eve's teacher, ours left the room, then came back in with tears in his eyes. He said, "Boys and girls, the President has been shot." To this day I can hear old Mr. Hardin's voice, and the silence in the classroom.

    I agree with Dale--SK's 11-22-63 is excellent. It's a time-travel novel, a love story, and a history lesson, all rolled into one.

  8. I was 17 and a junior in high school. I will never forget that day. November 22, 1963 is burned in my brain. Eve, congratulations on your blog post and your upcoming short story in December's Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. 2016 has been a very successful year for you. All your reading, research, reworking, and writing has paid off. Great job.

  9. I was a junior, in my third-year Latin class when the principal came on the PA to tell us about Kennedy's being assassinated. I remember that was the word he used because we had a German exchange student in the class who didn't know the word and someone explained it to her with tears pouring down his face. This was my introduction to evil in the world. And yeah, I remember the groups and the characters/celebrities, too. Great list, Paul. I feel like I'm back there.

    The Beatles revolutionized pop music and most of the world over the next several years, and there's little question they were great. I often wonder if they would have caught on in America as quickly if we were not going through such trauma and needed some good news. We'll never know. One of my best friends from theater will turn 53 years old tomorrow. He was born about 14 hours after JFK was shot. Unfortunately, it's easy to remember his birthday.

    We all remember where we were at the major event in life, don't we: Kennedy, the Challenger Explosion, 9/11, the moon landing, maybe Woodstock and a few others. How many of us use them for material in our stories?

  10. I was in my sixth-grade classroom. Our teacher (like John's and Eve's) left the room, then came back and said the President was dead. I remember thinking, "The president of what?"--it didn't occur to me that she could mean President Kennedy. That was unthinkable. The school let us out early, and when I got home, my mother wasn't there (she was at a neighbor's house, watching the news on television). That's when I really panicked. I wondered if she might be dead, too, if the whole world might be falling apart piece by piece.

  11. I was too young to really understand it. I believe I was in fourth grade. In class we watched the funeral procession on a black-and-white TV, but that's all I remember being said about it at the time. My parents didn't say much at home, but they were never ones to show emotion. At that age I wasn't interested in world affairs. I pretty much missed the '60s at the time.

  12. Thanks, Janice. I hope you’ll enjoy it. It was a fun one to do.

    Thanks for sharing that, Jack. I’m sure it was a tough time in your house as in ours and many.

    Thanks for sharing your memory, Bill. I’m sure it was very emotional and tough time.

    That’s an interesting alternate take, Gayle, since you were overseas. Thanks for sharing it.

    Thank you for sharing those memories, Eve. I’m sure it was hard then and now when thinking about it.

    I haven’t read that yet, Dale, but it’s on my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendation and the memory.

    Thanks for seconding 11-22-63, John. I’ll have to move it up my list. And thanks, too, for the memory.

    Thanks for your comments, Allan.

    Steve, thank you for your comments. As you say, we all remember where we were for various important events. I think it was an introduction to the real world for a lot of us. And personally, I’d like to think that the Beatles would have made it huge anyway, but who knows. And I wonder if it’s difficult for your friend – was his birthday actually on the 22nd or on the 23rd? And, in answer to your question, I definitely mine my past for my stories.

    Thanks, B.K., for your comments. That must have been scary for you not to find your mom at home think everything was going to hell in a handbasket, which I guess it was.

  13. Thanks for your comments, Sally. It's interesting to see everyone's different reactions or remembrances.

  14. I was three, apparently we found out that afternoon while backing out of my Grandma's driveway. (I'd been in that driveway many times on sunny, warmish days but I don't remember that one.)My cousin had just been born, and two kids who would become my best friends were just a few months old. (Of the three, only one is still living!) I barely remember seeing JFK in the flickering B/W of our TV---I was more interested in The Flintstones. And I have since read a lot about that day (Including back issues of my High School paper, where someone lamented that a few kids cheered the announcement of JFK's shooting!) Oh, Paul, congrats on the story!

  15. Thank you for your comments and memories, Jeff. At three I can understand how the Flintstones would interest you more. And thanks, re: the story too.

  16. I was in fourth grade. This static-y radio broadcast came over the school loudspeaker. The only words I made out were Kennedy... car...shot. As it became clearer our teachere, Mrs. W., leaned her forehead against the blackboard and cried for a few seconds. Then she turned around to face us... I'm sure she never forgot that moment.

    But the day America changed, irretrievably, was the next day, when Oswald got shot and our chance of getting certain answers disappeared forever.

  17. Thanks, Rob, for your comment. And I'm sure Mrs. W. never forgot, just like it sounds like you haven't. And everything did change in those few days, sorry to say.

  18. I was home with a fake cold. Didn't want to go to school that day. I was alone (12 years old) as my mother and aunts were out shopping. I saw it all unfold on CBS. I'll never for forget Walter Cronkite's face and voice. When my mom and aunts came back, I told them and they all started crying. Those of us who were around then felt EXACTLY as you said - it was the "end of innocence for the country." It's never been the same for me. Never will.

  19. I was in my grade school classroom when our teacher was called out of the room by the principal. She took us to use the time for free reading. I pulled out the book I was in the middle of reading. Then the teacher came back in and told us the president had been shot. I closed that book and didn't pick it up again for more than a decade. It was PT 109.

  20. Thanks for sharing that O’Neil. I’m not sure if it was better to be home alone and be able to watch it all or if it would have been better to share with your schoolmates.

  21. That’s kind of spooky, Martin. Wow. Thanks for sharing it.

  22. Like Steve, I was in Latin class. I'm still appalled by non-conspiracy theorists.

  23. When I was a kid, servicemen returning from Japan brought back a song titled 上を向いて歩こう… Okay, in English it translated to I Look Up While Walking by Kyu Sakamoto. It was catchy and we kids absorbed the lyrics without knowing what they meant, kind of ironic because the song was protesting American occupation. A year or two later, 1963, that song came out in English and was called Sukiyaki.

    Cut to decades later. I’m working in Europe where Japanese culture and cuisine hadn’t yet been embraced. I’m visiting a French friend in Switzerland who’d married a Japanese woman. We’re sitting around the dinner table and I mentioned a popular song when I was a kid by Kyu Sakamoto– I remembered the name. To everyone’s surprise including my own, I also remembered fragments of the Japanese lyrics. Jean-Francois’ wife finally explained them to me. She had no idea it had been popular in the US.

  24. Thanks, Leigh. Those are great stories, sort of bookends to each other.


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