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The Suburbanite
  • JFK assassination stole a generation's innocence

  • The moments after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago may have been the first time that a generation of Americans felt fear about what life had in store for them as adults.
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  • "For the baby boomer generation, the killing of John F. Kennedy seems to mark a period of social change that defines our life," wrote Cincinnati minister Darris McNeely recently in The Good News, an online magazine.
    "There was the America before November 22," he wrote, "and the America after November 22."
    The moments after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago may have been the first time that a generation of Americans felt fear about what life had in store for them as adults.
    Previously, we had felt the fear of first-time physical feats, such as jumping from high places into favorite swimming holes. We knew, too, the nervousness of standing in front of a roomful of fellow students, steeling our resolve to recite an assignment in class. And we were familiar with the apprehension of waiting until our fathers came home following our childhood transgressions.
    But there never had been a need to feel a fear of life itself, to fear evil in the world, to fear the unknown.
    Then Kennedy was killed, and a generation lost its innocence.
    BACKYARD RUMINATIONS
    I was 12 when JFK was assassinated. Already, I had solved most of the world's problems, or at least the ones of which the world had made me aware.
    The youths who inhabited my neighborhood had spent long hours — in the shade of summer afternoons and the damp grass of early autumn evenings — mulling over experiences that our lives had encountered. We discussed current events, interpersonal relationships, dreams and goals.
    We just called it "talking about stuff" if our parents asked what we had done with our time. But I personally think that we came away from those idle talks with the belief that we had made some significant headway toward understanding our world, and finding our place in it.
    On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, after school had been dismissed early so students and staff could react to a national tragedy, several sons of the neighborhood stood in my backyard talking about a world that had darkened that day. We discussed political plots and communist conspiracies — vague and frightening theories we had heard speculation about — and, suddenly, not everything in our lives made as much sense to us anymore.
    MEMORABLE MOMENT
    It is ironic that our collective memory of the Kennedy assassination — an event that caused the clarity with which we viewed the world to become blurred — itself remains so vivid in our minds. "Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was killed?" is a simple question to answer five decades later.
    Still, there have been other memorable moments that have not become seminal ones. Beyond the stunning nature of it, which burned the event into our memories, the Kennedy assassination started a period of change in society that lasted through the 1960s and beyond.
    Page 2 of 2 - "There are moments in history that change the world forever. Time is suspended when an event occurs that is so shocking, so unexpected, so inexplicable, that from that moment forward nothing can ever be the same," wrote former Secret Service agents Gerald Baine and Lisa McCubbin in "The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence."
    "In the blink of an eye, on that dreadful day in Dallas, the hopes and dreams of the nation and the world were shattered."
    PROMPTS CHANGE
    Certainly, Kennedy's death stole our hope for a time. A generation that had known world wars — world hate — only through history books was pinning its faith in a better world on a young and vibrant leader.
    It all was perception, of course. The Kennedy administration was never Camelot until after the president was killed, and a grieving widow was trying to place her lost husband's deeds into historical context.
    Still, the loss of what you believe you possess is as defeating and deflating as the theft of actual possessions.
    So Kennedy's assassination diminished our trust. Who could you trust and where could you be safe in a world in which the most protected among us could be killed?
    American society was left violated. A nation suddenly was mourning not only what was, but what might have been.
    INSPIRES ACTION
    Using the president's own words, the torch was passed to a new generation. Baby boomers attempted to preserve the Kennedy legacy, the larger-than-real-life legend, alive.
    To some members of the generation — those who wanted to advance the causes Kennedy had championed — service was as simple as joining such organizations as the Peace Corps.
    Others among us, finding force in large numbers, sought change in a broader sense. "Flower power" fueled peaceful protest of war and violations of civil rights, but ironically resulted in violence in the streets and on college campuses.
    Some success was achieved in the wake of the shortened Kennedy presidency. But more murders followed — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy among them. More wars occurred. More social ills plagued our country. More violence erupted in the years that followed the Kennedy assassination.
    No problems have seemed as simple to solve since shots were fired in Dallas. The confident smile was erased from the face of a slain president that day in Dallas, and sorrow replaced hope in the nation that was left behind.
    Reach Gary at 330-580-8303
    On Twitter: @gbrownREP