By Sam Pollak
CNHI News Service
— For the record — and to ease the burden of research for my future biographers — I was eating a tuna fish sandwich … on white bread … with lettuce and mayo.
I don’t remember what I had for lunch last Wednesday or Thursday, but I do recall what I was doing and what I was eating on Nov. 22, 1963, when I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
It’s easy to remember for several reasons, not the least of which was that in all my 13 years, I had never seen my mother react the way she did on that Friday afternoon in our split-level house in Plainview, Long Island.
The then-41-year-old woman screamed, “WHAT?!!” and threw herself violently onto her knees right in front of the big black-and-white television set in our living room. She didn’t want to believe what she was hearing: Our gallant, vibrant, young president had been murdered.
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of that horrible day that in many ways stole the innocence of a generation that hadn’t — like its predecessor — been hardened by the Depression and World War II. That generation would soon learn more than it wanted to know about a place called Vietnam and bear witness to a decade of strife and upheaval.
Amid the 1960s tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we had the television images of civil rights marchers being beaten in Alabama, the horrifying Associated Press photo of South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a suspected Viet Cong officer in the head during the Tet Offensive, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
On the other hand, we had the Beatles, teenyboppers and a couple of guys who landed on the moon.
And, for me, at least, all the turmoil began on Nov. 22, 1963, when a beloved president died in Dallas, Texas.
“Where were you when you heard” is always the question, whether it was the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the D-Day invasion or 9/11. For my generation, it was always, “where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot?”
I’m not sure whether Mom had the TV set tuned to Walter Cronkite on CBS or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, but I know she was crying. President Kennedy seemed to represent everything hopeful and noble — long before all the tawdry gossip about his female dalliances came out years later.
(By the way, if you want to feel really, really old, ask any 20-something person you meet if he or she knows who Walter Cronkite was.)
My mother was hoping fervently that whoever had done this terrible thing was not Jewish. It seems irrational now, but the Holocaust was still green in her memory, as was the anti-Semitism of her youth. But truth be known, I’ve had similar thoughts when it came to the Newtown shootings and just about every other act of domestic terrorism.
Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t Jewish, thank heavens. Jack Ruby, the guy who killed Oswald, was, but that didn’t seem quite so terrible.
I wandered outside to talk to my friends, telling them that President Kennedy had been killed. The newspaper editor that I am today is rather ashamed of that. I had jumped the gun before official word came through that he was dead rather than wounded.
Later on that awful night, instead of the warm, casual greeting we always shared when my father came home from work, not a word was spoken. Mom, my brother and I were watching the news, and there just didn’t seem anything appropriate to say.
Remembering those details after all these years, I feel like a geezer among my younger colleagues for whom Kennedy’s death is just another fact of history, as relevant to them as the Battle of Hastings. For me, John F. Kennedy’s murder and the national mourning that followed it would be an adolescent’s first experience with death.
I lost a lot of my innocence that day. But then, so did everyone else.
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y.