The End of the Innocence by
100
(134 Stories)

Prompted By Disasters

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Home Ec class (Google Images)

It was November of my eighth grade year. For our last period of the day, the girls had home economics and the boys had a free period. Needless to say, we were pretty annoyed about this unfairness, even in that pre-feminist era. The school required the girls to take TWO YEARS of home ec, in seventh and eighth grade, while the boys had one semester of Nutrition, and then a year and a half of free period. Not even a study hall. They could go home, or go to the snack bar, or do whatever they pleased, while we had to learn about cooking and sewing and childcare. But this is not the disaster I am writing about, this is just setting the stage.

On this particular November Friday, we were sitting in home ec class learning how to make salad dressing. I know that seems bizarre, but that was really what was on the schedule that day. Halfway through the class, a college student came running into our classroom. My school was a demonstration school on the campus of a state teachers college, and there were always college students running all over, as well as sitting in the back of all our classes as observers, while we were taught by the college professors. So a college student coming into the room wasn’t unusual, but this guy burst into the room looking pretty frantic. Our teacher looked exasperatedly at him, annoyed by the interruption. He cried out, “President Kennedy has just been shot!” We all started buzzing about this, and he ran out again. The teacher then emphatically stated, “Pay no attention, I’m sure this is some kind of fraternity hazing stunt. We must finish this lesson about salad dressing.” And somehow or other we did.

After class was over, we walked back to the main high school building, where we found out that it was true, the president had really been shot in Dallas. I think by that point he had already been pronounced dead. Who could imagine such a thing happening?! I started crying inconsolably, as did many of my friends. Nothing in our lives up to that point had prepared us for anything like this. We all went home, still in a state of shock. One of my classmates called me up because she was worried about me, I had been so hysterical. Even my father, when he came home from the office, was crying, and I had never seen him cry before. The world seemed topsy turvy. After dinner that night I remember thinking I wanted to do something to take my mind off this tragedy, so I turned on the TV to watch Burke’s Law, an amusing show about a millionaire LA police officer who went around in his Rolls Royce solving crimes. The show wasn’t on though — all programming on every channel had been pre-empted for coverage of the assassination. That was something that had never happened before either.

All weekend all three television networks were showing nothing but the assassination and its aftermath, and I watched it with my family. So it was that on Sunday, a little after noon, we saw Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas police headquarters, about to be transported to the county jail, get shot by Jack Ruby, and crumple up. While actors shot each other on TV shows all the time, it was clear to me even then that this was different, that it was a real gun with real bullets, and we had actually just watched Ruby kill Oswald. As we continued to watch, Ruby was immediately arrested and led away. This was almost as hard to comprehend as the killing of the president. My twelve-year-old mind didn’t begin to know how to process it all. The whole three days seemed surreal. We went back to school on Monday, but nobody could concentrate on anything except the assassination.

For our generation I think that November 22, 1963 was the disaster that defined us. Everyone I know who is over 60 can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot. After that there were so many more disasters — more assassinations, riots, wars, terrorism — but this was the first one, at least in my lifetime. In 2013 numerous articles and documentaries on the 50th anniversary of the assassination (so hard to believe that it had been 50 years!) said that this event marked the end of innocence in America. Nothing would ever be the same again.

 

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. John Zussman says:

    Your vivid and personal description of those days mirrors the experience of a whole generation. It truly was the end of innocence—along with confidence, optimism, and trust in our own national greatness. But you alone can add the bizarre twist of its preemption by salad dressing (which no doubt you can now make in your sleep).

  2. rosie says:

    Sometimes I can’t express the way something is written as well as it has already been said. I felt the pain and remembered my exact location and experience as I read about your experience. I still feel it from time to time when I realized it. Keep writing, your stories are appreciated.

  3. I liked how you approached this pivotal moment, Suzy. First you had us recalling the stupid but very real inequities between male and female treatment and then brought us up sharp with the messenger’s terrible news. I also loved the impressions you chose, your inconsolable grief, your father’s unprecedented tears, the general feeling of confusion and loss, and the shock of watching Ruby kill Oswald cutting through the numbness in the aftermath of the assassination.

    I remember standing in Quincy House that Sunday, watching all the couples troop by toward Harvard Stadium, caught half way between the ridiculous and the sublime, self-pity that I didn’t have a football date, my numbed brain piecing together analysis about Oswald, was he the killer, Ruby and his motives. You brought it all back. Tks!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    You absolutely nailed it, Suzy. For our generation JFK’s assassination was the ultimate disaster; the one, as you note, that we all remember: “What was I doing when I heard the news?” And, exactly as you stated; it was the “End of the Innocence,” even as the assassinations and other horrors of the 60’s added it.

    That said, the other thing which I particularly liked about your story was the juxtaposition of the assassination news with the home ec class and the salad dressing recipe. It so nicely established the enormous contrast between this cosmically tragic event and the mundane details of our daily lives. It also brought us all back to what our world was like in 1963, right down to the casual sexism of junior high school classes.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks John. I used the Don Henley/Bruce Hornsby song for my title, even though it was mainly about the Reagan era, because it seemed to apply so well to the JFK assassination. And in fact, in Henley’s music video for the song, he is shown singing in front of the Texas School Book Depository. (I probably should have added that to the story when I wrote it two years ago.)

      • John Shutkin says:

        I well recognized the song in your title, and it was a great choice, even though it came at a later time. Unfortunately, it has become an ear worm since I read your story yesterday. You may need to write another story — with another song title title — to get it out of my head.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I am two years younger than you, so I was in 6th grade, having just moved from Detroit to a near suburb and was miserable at my new school. We built our house and moved in early October, 1963. It was all too much for my mother, who had a nervous break down and took to her bed, where she stayed for weeks. The kids were miserable to little me (I skipped part of 5th grade…more on that in an up-coming prompt) and I felt horribly out of place. I worshipped JFK. Nov 22, 1963 was the day before my father’s 50th birthday and we planned a house warming/birthday party for him on Saturday.

    Just before school let out, our teacher came in and said something bad had happened and a buzz went through the class. One kid said, “I know, they’ve poisoned our bubble gum.” Finally, the teacher confirmed that the president had been shot, but don’t tell the younger kids, as the school didn’t want the little ones upset on the way home. I got home quickly, turned the TV on to confirm, then went to my mother in her bed to tell her. I was devastated. She hardly reacted. She was on heavy-duty tranquilizers. Her sister from Cleveland had come to care for my brother and me. I watched as much TV as I could, but was sent to a neighbor’s house for much of the weekend, as my mother found it all too depressing. We did have the party for my father the next night. It was the saddest party you could imagine. My mother didn’t leave her room, but greeted guests in a pink, satin bed jacket. No one felt like celebrating. I was not allowed to watch the funeral. The first book I bought with my own money was called “Four Days” about the assassination. I have been obsessed with the Kennedys ever since. At school we put together a memorial scrapbook and set up a table just inside the entrance to the school with a lit candle and the book. I volunteered to come in early and sit by it every morning for a week after the funeral. I am a long-standing member of the Kennedy Library. It was a pivotal moment in my life, perhaps encapsulating all the misery I was experiencing.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, Betsy, that’s quite a story. You could post it as a disaster story of your own! So sorry about your mother — my mother was always my rock, so I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

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