For Barry Mills, the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is about recalling a national tragedy as well as the people around him who mattered most.
As we all know by now, tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. For at least some of our current students, 9/11 was a day they will remember forever—only “some,” because, as hard as it is to believe, our first-year students were only five or six years old in 2001. Time flies by and, in addition to 9/11, those of us from the baby boomer generation will also always remember November 22, 1963. We will remember that day because of the national tragedy and also because it is one of those days in our lives that is forever etched in our personal recollection of family.
I was thirteen in 1963 and was in homeroom that afternoon at Aldrich Junior High School in Warwick, Rhode Island. Like tomorrow, it was also a Friday. I was sitting in the back row of the classroom when over the PA system (remember those?) it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot. I remember hurrying home and seeing the replay of Walter Cronkite working to maintain his composure as he announced to the nation that the president was dead. These days, I am swiftly reminded of my own “maturity” when I see a replay of Cronkite’s announcement on the History Channel.
President Kennedy was the first president I paid attention to as a young person. I remember the famous televised debates with Richard Nixon and then deciding to pay closer attention after I read Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. I obviously wasn’t able to vote at that age, and I honestly can’t remember which of the candidates impressed me more. What I do remember is how those days of “Camelot” affected everyone, even those of us living far away and in pretty different circumstances in suburban Rhode Island.
Today our students study the events of that long weekend in history books and see the images in countless documentaries. For my generation, it all remains vivid: the violence at Dealey Plaza; the fear and uncertainty about what had been done and by whom; Lyndon Johnson taking the oath aboard Air Force One; and, of course, the Kennedy family gathering to bury JFK at Arlington. But it was the televised murder of Lee Oswald that will forever be imprinted in my memory. I was sitting in our living room on Squantum Drive with my parents that Sunday, watching a small television, when we saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live TV. These days, with reality TV, all of this would probably seem less shocking, especially given the horrors we experience in our national and international media on a daily basis. But, back in 1963, that weekend of horrible events and national sorrow profoundly affected us all. There were only three major television networks then (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and so we all shared pretty much the same narration, the same pictures, and the same sense of shock and grief.
It was a family experience to sit and talk to one another and to try to make sense out of what had happened.
I’m sure everyone of my vintage has personal memories of being with their families and of watching and experiencing that dark weekend together. In most homes there was only one way to watch: the family TV. It was a family experience to sit and talk to one another and to try to make sense out of what had happened. My recollection of that experience is very different from the way we have lived through more recent and equally horrible national tragedies, with multiple media outlets and modern social media allowing us to experience these events on a much more individual basis. Back then, it was very different and, for many of us, that weekend a half-century ago reminds us of family. It also reminds us that many of the people with us then are now gone.
None of this is to suggest that the past is better or worse than the present, but only to express my memory of how those tragic days in November 1963 profoundly affected a generation of Americans. As I find myself bombarded by the media with the history of 50 years ago, I can’t help but remember living through it or thinking about the people and places that meant so much to me.
Of course, all of this happened just days before Thanksgiving and, as we gathered to count our blessings on November 28, 1963, America was very much in mourning. This year, fifty years later, I wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving and a day with family and friends that will bring only the memory of good things fifty years hence.
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