FRANKFORT — Like a lot of people my age, I remember precisely where I was 49 years ago on Nov. 22.
I was on a sidewalk outside Liberty Street Elementary School in Glasgow when a classmate, Mitchell Nance, told me President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
We walked across the campus to the Music Hall where our seventh-grade class in Kentucky history was to meet after our lunch break. I didn’t know what to think.
We asked our teacher, Mr. Saltzman, if the president would live. He didn’t know and he didn’t know what to tell us any more than we knew what to feel. Then over the intercom (we called it the loud speaker in those days) came the principal’s somber, baritone voice telling us Kennedy was dead.
It was a Friday. I spent the next day with cousins and uncles while they stripped tobacco. I wasn’t much help, good only for stripping the tips which remained after others had stripped the higher grades from the stalk. I spent most of my time outside the barn, playing.
On Sunday afternoon we sat around the black and white television watching as thousands lined up and filed silently by the president’s coffin in the U.S. Capitol. I remember his widow kneeling in prayer beside it. Then the next day, we watched the rider-less horse, the salute by John-John and the lighting of the eternal flame.
Life seemed to go on however. Christmas came and went. We returned to school. In February four lads from Liverpool took a grieving nation by the hand – or at least its youth. I recall the quizzical looks on my parents’ faces while I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I’ve always maintained the “sixties” began with Kennedy’s assassination and ended with Richard Nixon’s resignation as the Watergate scandal unraveled his presidency. A lot happened in that decade. There would be more rock bands, British, American and subversive, and we dreamed of joining a band and growing our hair.
The next year, the Glasgow schools integrated. I began to be aware of a place named Vietnam. Important people in my life, people I just assumed would always be here, began to die. The television delivered more disconcerting news: water hoses trained on marchers in Birmingham; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; urban riots; and body counts from Saigon.
To my dismay and that of my classmates, the tough middle school principal who announced the president’s death followed us to high school and tried to keep the lid on as we struggled with race, a simmering anti-war sentiment, long hair and the “Age of Aquarius.”
Among the black kids who joined us in the hallways of GHS were some really good, really brave people and some incredible athletes. Our high school won a state basketball championship and suddenly we kind of felt like family – well most of us, most of the time, or at least some of the time. There were a few, maybe more than a few, who didn’t. But being white and now nearly 50 years removed, it’s not hard to forget them.
Last weekend, my daughter and I watched the movie “Lincoln,” about another assassinated president. I wondered what Lincoln would think of us today. We have an African-American president who, for someone who stood on that sidewalk 49 years ago, represents an astonishing change.
I have grown old and wish I hadn’t. But I wouldn’t trade my time for any other. I am thankful to have lived in such extraordinary times.