JFK: Where Were You In ’63?


John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The film AMERICAN GRAFFITI was originally promoted with the advertising line “Where were you in ’62?”. Released in 1973, George Lucas’s great film portrayed one night in the lives of Southern California teens doing what they all did in that era: hanging out with friends, meeting in a bright common place, and running with the music and voices on the radio that soundtracked our lives. The underlying message was that this one night was a bridge from a time of innocence to a time of change and uncertainty.

The teens were celebrating their last night of freedom before a major metamorphosis occurs. You will never enjoy that innocence again. You will go off to college. You will go off to work. You will go off to new ideals. You will become jaded or emboldened. You will never have the same circle of friends, that dynamic, that support again. One only needs to look at the sequel to AMERICAN GRAFFITI to have that change brought home. Each film followed the same characters, except the sequel forced them out of a neon-colored, rock and roll fueled comfort zone and into the real world, a world that was made even more harrowing and uncertain by one event that shook the world and made us all grow up a little.

The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on this date, Nov 22, 1963, shifted our worlds forever.

This post is not a historical retrospective, but simply where I was when it was happening. I was seven years old, in 2nd grade at OUR LADY OF LOURDES in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. Frankly, I remember snippets of many things, but hey, I was a kid. Things that concerned me were junior versions of the neon escapades of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. I was busy going to school and playing, emphasis on playing. I was not even in the world of politics. The evening news was simply the time to eat dinner. I knew Kennedy and liked Kennedy because my parents knew and liked Kennedy. I did not know where Vietnam was, I heard the phrase BAY OF PIGS but as a 7 year old, I really did not grasp it.

Then the cliché kicks in. “Where were you in ’63?” would be the question the large majority of people would forever remember the answer to when the date Nov. 22, 1963 would come up. For me, I was in class. I don’t remember what I was doing, but I remember the announcement that came off the loudspeaker. It did not give any more details other than PRESIDENT KENNEDY had been shot. As a boy who was blissfully enjoying the “CAMELOT” of Kennedy’s presidency, this was a shock, but for that age, an incomprehensible shock.

cronkite

School was dismissed and we were sent home. I walked home and found my mother sobbing at the dining room table. I could see that she was very sad, but I would now start to learn why. I was seven years old and my heroes were just forming and still very fluid. My parents’ heroes were my heroes because my parents were my heroes. So I sat and consoled my mother (and later my father) as they faced something so new to me.

A national sadness was something I had never experienced in my short life. I had inklings of bad, such as hearing the terms “Bay Of Pigs”, “Khrushchev”, “Nuclear Weapons”, “Fidel Castro” and other dangers that lurked somewhere out there but just a bit out of the comprehension of a seven year old.

I watched with my parents over the next grey days as the world mourned and as they mourned. I remember black and white TV’s showing one thing, the caisson carrying the Presidents body passing John-John and the boy, not much younger than me, simply saluting back. Trust me, not much impressed this seven year old, but that image did.

Going forward, I watched a world change, but from the unique perspective of a seven year old who had a brief whirlwind life that was cocooned and safe and warm. I started growing up right then. In the next few weeks, other changes would explode. THE BEATLES would ignite a monumental sea change in music. The presidency would be passed to a new man who was the charismatic opposite of JFK. We would begin to hear about a far away land called VIETNAM that would tear our troops apart thousands of miles away from our homes and our people apart here at home. We would see black people finally scream “Enough!” about the social injustices that they faced and affect the most profound human change and improvement the world has ever know.

Our family would get a color TV. We would start to vacation in Longport NJ every summer. We would get a real stereo. I would buy my first LP myself “THE CHIPMUNKS SING THE BEATLES”. I would move through grades and grow. In 1968, this blissfully unaware child of seven in 1963 would become an twelve year old who became obsessed with the failed 1968 candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, even sitting at the dining room table sobbing when Humphrey lost, and my mother consoling me.

The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on this date, Nov 22, 1963, shifted our worlds forever.

It is still shifting uncomfortably and unnervingly today.

In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

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8 comments on “JFK: Where Were You In ’63?

  1. I had a very similar experience to you. I was 6, in first grade at Sacred Heart School in New Brunswick, NJ. We all stood up at the end of every day to say prayers before dismissal. Just before dismissal that day I remember my teacher going out into the hall and coming back in and she was crying Then the announcement. And we all stood and said a prayer for President Kennedy. I was unaware what this meant except that our teacher was sad. When I got home my mother was sitting on the floor in the living room in front of the TV and she was crying. This suddenly brought it all home for me, my mother never cried. The TV , it seemed, didn’t go off for three days. I had a flashback when I was watching the 9/11 disaster. It felt the same to me, the TV constantly on and you just couldn’t stop watching.

  2. I was much older than the two of you. I was in 9th grade and the big “thing” was a type of joke where you asked “Did you hear that…” and the answer was always silly. We were between classes when someone said Did you hear that President Kennedy was shot? And I immediately thought it was a joke. It wasn’t until a teacher told us that yes, he’d been shot and was in bad condition. Like you, the TV was on for days. What I remember MOST clearly was that one day they showed Lee Harvey Oswald being transported from one place to another when Jack Ruby shot him. We were all watching at the time and my father turned to us, and with sorrow in his voice, said that it was probably the first and last time we would ever see a murder committed on live TV, especially since in that day, there was very little live TV outside of the news. It’s one of those days where you never forget where you were and what you were doing…

  3. Janet, your experience is so similar to mine. And yes, the same feeling hit me during 9/11, but that was more helplessness than unknowing confusion.

    Chris, I remember the Oswald shooting, but I think more from film and documentaries than from live TV. The live stuff was so new and so overwhelming to me.

    Back in 1994, I went to a VSDA video convention in Dallas and I went to the grassy knoll. I was so humbled and affected. It looked exactly like I had always pictured it and i just stood silently there for many minutes.

  4. I wasn’t born quite yet, actually wasn’t quite conceived by that time, either. But one of the darkest days in our nations history…thanks for sharing your experience, Adrian, and all that shared in the comments section, as well.

    • Sandy, I think so many of us shared that strange day like that. And in a way, it may have helped us kids deal with it more because we were with others when the news came over the loudspeaker.

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