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
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.
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