Innocence lost when Kennedy died

Innocence lost when Kennedy died
An oil painting of former president John F. Kennedy done by US correspondent Paul Zach on July 9, 1964, when he was 13 years.

Like most Americans alive at the time, I remember exactly where I was on the afternoon of Friday, Nov 22, 1963, even though I was only 12 years old and it happened 50 years ago: seventh grade, Mrs Hunter's Reading Writing Spelling class, Garfield Heights Junior High School.

The announcement came over the public announcement speaker above the blackboard. The principal told us that our beloved president John F. Kennedy had been shot. What happened next, though, is a bit of a blur.

Class was dismissed. We were told to go home and turn on our TVs. I recall stopping in a grocery store next door, seeing groups of people huddled in shock. Some sobbed, all speaking in hushed tones. By then, word had come: JFK was dead.

In the months afterwards, our family would buy the memorial coffee table books put out by Life magazine and others. I bought and read the paperback edition of the long, dry Warren Report on the assassination. On July 9, 1964, I finished an oil painting of my fallen hero.

For a youngster who had grown up in the 1950s in a Roman Catholic family in a colourful, lower-middle-class, Polish-American neighbourhood in Cleveland, a once-robust Rust Belt city in Ohio that had already seen better days by then, the election of a charismatic, young president three years earlier marked a turning point.

My parents had just bought our first home, we put a "John F. Kennedy For President" sign out front, and we wore his campaign buttons on our lapels. I read his book, Profiles In Courage; it is still on my home office shelf.

On a frigid Jan 20, 1961, only one day shy of my own birthday, the nuns at St Mary's of Czestahowa Catholic School hauled a TV into our classroom to watch the inauguration of the first Catholic president, a welcome respite from the usual day-long line-up of prayers, reading and arithmetic.

All America felt as young and energetic as baby-boomers like me, something I was still too interested in toy cars and board games to realise, but could feel in my bones.

I would not feel that way again - until I moved to Singapore in the 1980s, and experienced its amazing growth and coming of age, then got married there and saw my son born in Mount Elizabeth Hospital in 2000, and most recently after returning to the United States, in time to see President Barack Obama elected.

Of course, Mr Kennedy's brief time in office was marked by one crisis after another - most notably the Cuban missile showdown that could have killed us all.

But primary school children like me were oblivious to that; I guess we assumed those infamous "duck-and-cover" drills - where we got down on our knees under our desks - would actually save us from atomic bombs. Certainly, Mr Kennedy would see to it.

His assassination, it is often said, marked the moment America "lost its innocence".

While that is debatable, it accurately summed up what happened to my generation on Nov 22, 1963: At an age when we thought we had all the time in the world ahead of us - a sense that anything and everything was possible - the sudden death of a 46-year-old visionary taught us in an instant the stark realities of life.

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