November 22, 1963 is commonly known as “The Day America Lost Its Innocence.” It’s, also, widely accepted that nearly all Americans living at that time have detailed memories of where they were and what they were doing on that day. Since I was leading a very active life in the American Midwest fifty years ago, I witnessed the reality of these things. So, I can share some of what I recall about my related experiences, as well as offer my perspective on that loss of innocence.
On that Friday in 1963, I awoke in our four-room (that’s four-room, not four-bedroom) home. It was in a blue-collar area of my hometown. I’d lived there with my single-mom and two siblings since I was born. Considering those circumstances, it may have been difficult to see from the outside looking in but life seemed pretty great to me. I was sixteen years old, I had just gotten my driver’s license and I had just finished playing a season as a starting defensive guard on my high school’s football team … we were undefeated that year. I still went to church where I received my salvation. I had loving relationships with my mother, my sister, my brother and extended family members on my mother’s side. I, also, had loving relationships with my father and extended family members on his side. In addition to family, I had a good social life. I was part of the “in crowd” at school. We had a formidable circle of friends and acquaintances throughout our community and I had my first “real” girlfriend … we were “going steady”. When it came to finishing my education and then finding success in work, things were looking pretty bright. My performance with high school studies was at a National Honor Society level, I had a couple of Junior Colleges interested in me as a football player, there was a state university in my hometown and even if nothing developed with scholarships, there were plenty of factory jobs available in town where I could earn what I needed for college tuition, books, etc. I don’t recall consciously having the Shakespearean thought “the world is my oyster” but things in my life seemed to be lining up pretty nicely.
I don’t really recall what I did for lunch on November 22, 1963, but I had gone somewhere away from school. When I returned, I went into the gym where most other students who shared my lunch period were hanging out; waiting to go to whatever class they had for the period after lunch. Just before the bell rang, to end my lunch period, my “steady girlfriend” appeared and she immediately asked if I had heard that President Kennedy had been shot. She was a year younger than me and she was also known to be “creative” with the truth”. So, my instant reaction was something like, “Oh come on, Louise! That’s not even funny!” Some around us reacted similarly but there were others chiming in that they had heard it was true. Then, the bell rang and there was an increasing buzz of related conversation, as we left the gym and headed towards our respective classrooms. My post-lunch class was English. I don’t recall a thing from that day’s class except that, along with the other students and the teacher, I was most distracted by what I’d heard about the President’s shooting. That distraction peaked with an announcement, about 15 or 20 minutes into the class period, coming over the public address speaker, housed in a small wooden cabinet, centered above the blackboard at the front of the classroom. For some reason, I think the announcement was made by a female school staff member but I don’t really remember whose voice I heard. And, I don’t remember exactly what was said in the announcement, except that President Kennedy had been assassinated and that school was being immediately dismissed.