Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Ago Today

I was sitting in art class on Friday, November 22, 1963. Mrs. Franzblau was the teacher. No doubt, my high school sophomore classmates were like most of our predecessors. We made fun of her. We paid little attention to her. We giggled a lot and bantered a lot during the art exercises she tried to get us to master.

Suddenly, the loud speaker on the wall at the front of the room crackled with static. It was a few minutes after one pm. An announcement was made that the president had been shot in Dallas. All students were to return to their home rooms for subsequent early dismissal.

I'm an early baby boomer, born three years into the population explosion of 1946-1964 when more than 76 million gained entry onto the nation’s census rolls. I'm therefore bemused when the John Fitzgerald Kennedy assassination is portrayed as one of the defining moments of my cohorts. Truly, few of them were old enough to fully comprehend its significance. Bill Flanagan, born in 1955, a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning, said the death of JFK resonated so powerfully with those who were kids at the time because “it was the moment our parents went from believing in all the great things that were going to be, to regretting what might have been.”

It’s a nice turn of phrase, but I’m too basic a person to wallow in the psychology of the moment. I can’t say I remember my parents moping about the assassination, though they were deeply disturbed by it. It didn’t stop my father and mother from working hard in their small manufacturing business, from prodding their three children to excel in school. Like most families that fateful weekend, we watched the round-the-clock network coverage. I seem to recall being home from school Monday and watching the funeral on television. Yet it would not be until 1968, when Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were felled by assassins’ bullets, that sudden, unimaginable tragedy struck a more intimate chord within me. By then I was 19, a sophomore in college this time, old enough to recognize and fully comprehend racism, intolerance and inequality, old enough to worry about the war in Vietnam and what the prolonged conflict might mean to me, personally, if I were drafted when my college deferment expired. 

That’s not to say I was oblivious to national and international events as a younger teenager. I can recall watching Kennedy’s press conferences, at least the ones he held late in the afternoon after I returned home from school. I remember watching on television our United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, use aerial photographs to expose the buildup of Russian missiles in Cuba. Did I think the world was about to come to an end? Probably not. It was more like a war game being played out before our very eyes as we saw our navy intercept Russian freighters on the high seas. It was only later we learned how close to the brink of annihilation the world had come.

A wasted world is what is lamented at the end of Camelot, the Lerner and Loewe musical of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that opened on Broadway in December 1960, a month after Kennedy’s election victory over Richard Nixon (the show closed January 5, 1963, 11 months before the president’s fateful trip to Dallas, and, coincidentally, my father’s birthday). 

Jacqueline Kennedy depicted her husband’s presidency with lyrics from the last song of Camelot, “a brief shining moment.” Just months after it opened, I saw the original Broadway production of Camelot, starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowall. Each year my parents, usually our mother, would take my brother, sister and me, individually, to a Broadway musical. I loved Camelot. My mother gave it mixed reviews. The next year we saw Kean, about the life and loves of Edmund Kean, the noted 19th century Shakespearean actor. I hated it. My mother loved it, partly because it starred Broadway legend Alfred Drake. I remember my mother favorably comparing Kean to Camelot. The public agreed with me. Kean closed after 92 performances, Camelot after 873.