Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Remembering The Defining Moment of Shared Angst

Trey Smith


For the current US generation, the defining moment for many is 9/11. People remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the events that day. (For Iraqis, their defining moment probably is when we started bombing them back to the Stone Age -- on false pretenses!) For some a tad bit older, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster has the same feel.

For those my age and older, the defining moment was thrust upon us on November 22, 1963. That was the day President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was felled by a sniper's bullet in Dallas, Texas.

On the day it occurred, I was about halfway through my first semester in Mrs. Thrall's 1st grade class at Hale Cook Elementary School in Kansas City, MO. As I recall, our class had just finished lunch and a few minutes on the playground. As we returned to the classroom, I noticed that Mrs. Thralls was dabbing her eyes. I knew something was up, but I wasn't prepared for what came next.

Once we were all seated at our desks, our teacher told us that something terrible had happened. She was trying to control her emotions, but she was having great difficulty doing so. Finally, after some hemming and hawing, she said almost in a whisper that President Kennedy had been shot. With the words out of her mouth, she began crying.

Many of us were crying too. Though very young in age, we knew the president was the leader of our nation. If he had been shot, maybe the world would come to an end. I can't speak for my classmates, but this news terrified me. If someone could shoot the president, how safe was a little boy like me?

A few minutes later, the school's principle came into the classroom and took Mrs. Thralls aside. She whispered something in her ear and Mrs. Thralls gasped, "Oh my god!" It was then that we learned that the president was not merely shot; he was dead.

They let school out early that day. I still can recall the feeling of horror that gripped me as I rode home on the school bus. It must have gripped the other kids too because we were quiet as church mice. Hardly a word was spoken.

Once home, I spent the better part of three days watching the TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. Actually, I didn't have much of a choice. If I wanted to watch television, nothing much else was on. I watched the funeral. I watched his children trying to come to grips with their father's sudden death.

My world changed dramatically that day. I lost a lot of my innocence. I became more fearful and it was a long time before things seemed to get back to normal.

In many ways, it was a bad decade to grow up in. Just when I was starting to feel somewhat safe again, Martin was shot and then Bobby. After that, whatever innocence remained was gone forever.  I came to understand that the world can be an ugly place.

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