The Day We Got Our Wakeup Call

I still can show you, within 5 or 10 feet, precisely where I was standing for a few minutes nearly half a century ago when I learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Unlike some people, I didn’t have a dramatic emotional reaction to the news, perhaps because even then, I didn’t idolize politicians. But it did change my outlook on life, and I suspect it did the same for millions of others in the Baby Boomer generation. Something similar occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

You have to remember that for many in my generation, life was a bowl full of cherries during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The economy was good. Vietnam had not become the horror it did soon after Kennedy died. Where I and many other young Americans lived, racism was something we only read about.

We were going to the moon, for heaven’s sake.

There were things about which to worry. Nuclear holocaust led the list – but in 1963, few really understood how bad a nuclear war would have been.

Life was good, in other words, with every prospect it would get much better. Kennedy told us it would. Because of the carefully crafted charisma he and his wife Jackie had built up – with the aid of some in the press who should have told us truths that would have destroyed his credibility – we believed him.

Then Lee Harvey Oswald shot him. Suddenly, blind optimism and faith both in people and the future in general didn’t seem realistic. Vietnam escalated. Race-related violence made headlines. We began to wonder whether government could lift millions out of poverty. We learned JFK had not been a knight in unblemished armor.

Many in my generation went from unguarded trust and optimism to the realism we should have lived by all along. Kennedy’s death was, in other words, something of an epiphany – and not a pleasant one.

Some have said the assassination was the end of “Camelot.” Not really. It was, instead, the beginning of an era in which many of my generation learned there never really had been a Camelot – and probably never could be one.

That, I think, is why so many of my age and near it remember Nov. 22, 1963 so clearly – not just because of the death of a president, but also because that was the day we received our wake-up call.

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