It was a crisp morning that bright autumn day in Fresno, with just enough breeze to blow the bangs on my forehead. I could see the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance as I walked the three blocks to my elementary school with my little sister, meeting my best friend at the corner as usual. I dropped Katy off at her half-day Kindergarten room and Cheryl and I walked into Mrs. Quick’s first-grade class to begin the earnest work of learning to read and add. Several hours later, we broke for lunch. I picked up Katy to walk home and have a sandwich with our mother and two younger siblings.
When we walked into the house, our mother cried as she explained that President Kennedy had just been shot. She made a plate full of PB&Js while staring at the 15″ b&w TV and never took her horrified eyes from the screen as we ate silently. A grizzled, gray-haired man whose face I knew from the evening news kept shuffling papers as they were handed to him and looking confused. I’d seen my mom upset before, I’d NEVER seen Walter Cronkite rattled. My knee started jiggling up and down under the table, causing a glass of milk to spill.
My mom sent me back to class a few minutes later (she even scheduled doctor visits for after school). The streets were bare, no traffic anywhere. The kids on the playground still shouted and played, but when the bell rang we were greeted in classrooms with lip biting, red-eyed teachers.
Poor Mrs. Quick, her blond bun pinned tightly to her scalp, tried to calm us down but we six-year-olds were confused and scared. An announcement bell sounded over the intercom before Principal May Iveson told us the president was dead. A woman screamed in the room next to ours, and Mrs. Quick told me she was going next door for a moment and put me in charge.
My parents were politically liberal, aware of progressive movements if not active (they were working on their fifth kid in seven years and had no time for anything else). At some point, they’d explained who the president of the country was, and with my newfound knowledge of George Washington, I’d made a leap in logic. “The president, the father of our country, has been shot. A bad man murdered him,” I said to my classmates as we talked it over. “America’s daddy is dead.” That was how I interpreted the news, and it’s stayed with me through all these years.
Classes were canceled as parents came for their kids. Cheryl and I walked home, stopping to watch the school custodian lower the American flag to half-mast. Our usual after school conversation dwindled away and at the corner we whispered, “…’bye,” to each other, going home to a world already changed.
Not a soul was in sight. The trees, bare branches reaching to a cold, uncaring sky, looked pathetic. Dusty crumbled leaves, as sad as I felt, littered gray gutters.
Later, there was even more confusion when Jack Ruby shot arrested suspect Lee Harvey Oswald before he could be fully questioned. Life was bleak. The funeral of President John F. Kennedy was the saddest event I’d ever seen on television. His children, my own age, brought home the tragedy on an intensely personal level. I stared at my father during dinners and worried what life would be like if he were violently ripped from us.
The ugliest side of politics won a battle that day, and conservative and liberal citizens drew into distinctly marked camps largely divided by attitudes toward the Vietnam war and age. Depending on which front my parents’ were fighting at the moment, they earned the titles ‘dove’, ‘liberal’, and ‘feminist’. I, self-identified by my pre-teen self, was a hippie.
Protestors were attacked by emboldened police departments, students beaten, gassed, even shot. Disenfranchised segments of the population demanded social justice. Civil rights were gained slowly for people now identifying themselves as African American, formerly known in polite society as colored people. In 1968, leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
In California, a grape boycott created by César E. Chávez brought the nation’s focus on migrant workers and their mistreatment at the hands of what was just beginning to be termed Agri-business. Some people wanted to create better working conditions for the people crossing the border of Mexico to find seasonal work. Others wanted to stop their influx into the country. Crop-dusters dropped weed killer on the protestors. Yes, you read that correctly. Poison was deliberately thrown on men, women, and children, now the parents and grandparents of kids hoping for acceptance under the Dream Act.
The next year, following riots at a Greenwich Village bar called The Stonewall Inn, the birth of what we now call the LGBT Movement began. A little over fifteen years to the day of President Kennedy’s death, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated.
Two steps forward, one step back. That’s the way Americans deal with progress, steadily dragging ourselves into the future with a political tug-of-war unique to our country. The death of President Kennedy heralded in a time of great division among our citizens which broke apart families and caused suspicion and judgment on all sides.
Jeeze, doesn’t that sound disgustingly damned familiar? Been there, done that just fifty years ago.