Fifty years ago this Friday I was preparing to make my stage debut as the town drunk in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" when the shots range out in Dallas and everything changed.
As a high school senior (I was in geography class when the shooting was first announced.), I was not very politically active or even aware. I was too young to vote in 1960 (despite colleagues' claims I voted for Lincoln), and even the Cuban missile crisis had only a peripheral impact on my battle to survive puberty. I only remember it was a very tense time.
My parents were Republicans and liked Ike. I don't know that they liked Richard Nixon as much as they were suspicious of Kennedy's Catholicism. I remember debating a classmate during the bus ride to school one day on whether JFK would be under the Pope's thumb if elected.
Vietnam was still a vague future threat, but growing up in small town America kept me pretty isolated, and happily so, from most of the real world's dangers. Then came the announcement on the school PA that the president was shot.
I remember the teacher, Mr. Kosinski, left the room and didn't come back. I don't think I thought much about what might happen because the announcement didn't say how seriously wounded he was. It was quite some time before the radio announcement was played saying the president was dead.
Classmates I talked to more than 40 years later recalled seeing teachers, including Mr. Kosinski, and students sobbing in the halls. I think that was the end of classes for the day because I don't remember going to the final one or two.
The "Our Town" cast and crew gathered that evening at the auditorium unsure whether the show would go on. Mrs. Price, an English teacher who directed the fall and spring productions, told us she talked to the superintendent about going ahead with the show "in the spirit of the moment." I'm not sure what that meant, but it didn't matter because the superintendent ordered the production postponed.
I always loved history, but as history was unfolding on TV all weekend, including the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, I had little interest in watching it. It wasn't that I was so emotionally involved I couldn't bear to watch. It was more that I was upset because it was pre-empting all my favorite morning cartoons and other shows.
Five and a half years later I still didn't want to watch the news coverage of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but this time I was emotionally caught up in the times and the events. Fifty years after JFK's death, I feel more connected to it than I did as a teenager. Now I wish I'd been more aware of it then.
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