November 22, 1963

Forgive me if I go “Ancient Mariner” on you, but I am a boomer, and as a product of my generation, I am compelled to tell you where I was on November 22, 1963.

I was 5, and after a morning of kindergarten (While I was very good at nap, I wonder if Mrs. Goldstein was effectively modeling individualized instruction and/or the development of 21st century skills?), I was in the living room with my mom, watching Bob Barker’s “Truth or Consequences.”–

Years later I can only wonder if there was a correlation between spending so much time with Bob Barker and my future SAT scores?

When the news flashed (Was it Walter Cronkite or, like so much else, is that memory something that has been implanted and embellished through the years?), my mom gave me a directive:  “Go down and tell Mrs. Bradley that the president’s been shot.” Mrs. Bradley was the other Irish immigrant on our block. (Did ethnicity seem to matter so much more in the early 60’s?)

I still remember knocking on Mrs. Bradley’s door, waiting for her to answer. I can remember the feeling, a feeling of almost pride, an awareness that I knew something important, something that Mrs. Bradley couldn’t possibly imagine, and that I was soon to be a revealer of significance.

The rest of the day was a blur of black and white television, a day of parents and grandparents, and Mrs. Bradley, all huddled together in our narrow row house living room. There was such sadness in that room, in part because we believed that JFK was one of us. It was as if someone from our neighbourhood, our tribe, our block, had suddenly been cut down. It was all so profoundly unfair.

Years later, after I’d had a chance to see Hyannis and Choate and Harvard, it would eventually  occur to me that, while the Kennedy’s and we may have been from the same tribe, we were surely not from the same neighbourhood! And, as it turns out, even Bob Barker, a man blessed with the second best name in game show history (Who could ever top the great “Wink Martindale”?) wasn’t who he seemed to be either. Despite his Vitamin D enriched, whole grain goodness persona, Bob was, as they might have said in the 60’s, “something of a ladies’ man.”

Fifty years is a sobering chunk of time, and I marvel at how, despite massive social, economic, and political changes, some things have actually stayed the same – especially in my mom’s living room. Despite all that has been revealed about the recklessness of the Kennedy’s, my mom remains a believer.  Somewhere in our house, there is still, I’m sure, that old painting of JFK’s sowing olive seeds with the Pope.

When I recently confessed that I am reading “The Patriarch,” a decidedly balanced biography of Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s dad, my mom’s automatic reply was, “Well, they can write anything they want about him, now that he’s dead.”

It’s clear that some dreams never die. Some torches never get passed. Even after half a century.


6 thoughts on “November 22, 1963

  1. Terrific. I remain that much younger than you (3 in 1963) that I have no recollection. I do remember my mom gathering us (then) four Leonard kids around a black kitchen stool to say a prayer for Bobby Kennedy after he was gunned down.
    Our school opened in 1963. We plan to have a “founding student” who attended back then (58 started the school that year) speak to our kids about his memories of that day in our Monday assembly. The first person I asked, a former trustee, good friend, and someone who would do just about anything for the school, demurred. “I just don’t think I can do it,” he told me. “That day is still too raw for me.”
    Take care,


    James W. Leonard
    Head of School
    Santa Fe Preparatory School
    1101 Camino Cruz Blanca
    Santa Fe, NM 87505

  2. I was a sophomore, 15 years old, in the gym of the old Prep (the one that burned down in January of my senior year) and we were deep into a pep rally for the big Thanksgiving football game played every year against Roman. Father Ayd, the principal, came up to the mike and simply said “Please file out quietly. The President is dead”. Earlier that afternoon, he had come on the intercom to tell us that he had been shot, but no one was prepared for this. I remember 200 teenage boys in absolute silence.

    I remember the trip home to Lansdowne. People crying on the street, the trolly, the Broad Street subway and the Media Local, And, of course, being glued to the television set for days after.

    It is indeed hard to believe it’s been 50 years…

  3. I was in fourth grade. That is one of the most vivid moments of our time, without question.
    Lest we forget. So much died that day. Perhaps it is the yoke we should don, before it is too late, indeed to try to recover the pass of that famous torch which our generation has fumbled so feebly.

    Down here we are in a deep need of discerning leadership. On one side, there is a siege strategy. On the other, a Laurel and Hardy-like act of constructing various sand castles in the sky.
    There is no in-between, no DMZ. Perhaps you read Brett Stephens in the wsj on the ersatz Lincoln notion. I will really shut up now.
    Thanks for listening.

  4. I was two months old, so my memory is muddled.
    But I was 5 when MLK was shot. Why do I have NO memory of this?

    More importantly, please explain Toronto and and their crack mayor Rob
    Ford. The guy is a series of SNL skits. Yet people continue to support
    him. I’ve lost all faith in Canada.

  5. A nicely-turned recollection. We’re the same age, and I remember that day, too. I was already home from kindergarten and my mother came into the living room to tell me what she’d just heard the president had been shot. My Irish Catholic grandmother had a portrait of JFK up in the kitchen, too. We all did.

    Fifty years! I play music in my classroom between classes, and the students and I often chat about songs. I told one student just the other day that I could clearly recall the first hit song by The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” debuting on the radio when I was six years old, playing at a friend’s house. Fifty years before that, in 1914, the hit song was “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.”

    You’re right: we’ve become Ancient Mariners. “Hold off! unhand me, greybeard loon!”

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