The Day JFK Was Shot

(I wrote this essay two years ago, in memory of the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.)

I remember where I was the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. I was in Miss Rankin’s first-grade classroom at Bowen Grade School, in Bowen, Ill. I was 6 years old.

When you’re 6, the president seems almost like God. He’s invincible. And President Kennedy was young and had a nice family — he even had a daughter my age.

By my sense of the permanence of the universe was altered that day.

Miss Rankin came into the room that afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963, and told us the president had been shot. I know I was sad and I think a little scared. Death is hard for a 6-year-old to comprehend. The death of a president is almost impossible to absorb.

I don’t remember a lot about the days that follow, but I know we watched the events on television. I know I was sad.

Kennedy’s assassination was a turning point in history. It was also a turning point in my perception of the world around me.

Soon the war in Vietnam was on the news every night, young people were protesting, African Americans were rioting in Watts and Detroit, Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy were shot — the world seemed to be at war with itself.

Bowen was far removed from the turmoil and yet it seemed very close to me as I watched it on TV.

I began to realize that the world was not always a safe place and that leaders did not always tell the truth. That knowledge was solidified for me with Watergate. Despite growing up in a solidly Republican household, I realized that President Nixon was not telling the truth and that the men who worked for him were not telling the truth.

During the decade following Kennedy’s assassination, our country saw more — and more wide-spread — turmoil in a shorter period of time than maybe any other time in its history. It was a time that seemed to go on forever, and yet looking back I realize it was less than 11 years from the day Kennedy was shot to the day Nixon resigned.

People talk about the legacy of the ‘60s and often refer to it as a time of hope and idealism and change. That’s true to some extent. But for me the 60s hold a legacy of disillusionment. I was too young to be part of the protests and yet not too young to understand what was going on. I did not develop a lot of respect for national leaders as a result of what I saw happening.

A lot has happened since 1974 — in my life and in the world. I have been shaped by many things besides the 1960s. I think I am generally an optimistic person. I vote and believe that votes count, especially at the local level. I am also a person of faith and that has sustained me through difficult experiences, including Sept. 11. I am not disillusioned with God. I just don’t expect a lot from our national leaders.

I’ve wondered why I don’t feel more strongly one way or the other about the presidential election or the war in Iraq. I think it’s because I’ve seen it all before. While the situation in Iraq is not exactly the same as the situation in Vietnam, there are enough similarities that I don’t expect a resolution any time soon. I expect endless discussion and maneuvering and many more soldiers to die.

I wonder what would have been different about the ‘60s and ‘70s if Kennedy had not been shot, or had survived the assassination attempt. Maybe not a lot. Many of the ingredients of the ‘60s were already there: we were involved in Vietnam, more young people were headed for college and questioning the status quo, the civil rights movement was well under way. And it’s important to remember that the decade saw many positive changes.

But I believe that the beginning of my low expectations for national leaders began the day I learned that a president could be killed, the day Kennedy was shot.

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