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The ride of a lifetime

Last Monday came and went with little notice, let alone any fanfare.

Then again, why wouldn’t it? Just because it was the defining moment of my generation doesn’t mean its lifetime would exceed ours.

I am, of course, referring to the JFK assassination.

I can’t say I remember it like yesterday, because I remember the assassination much better. As for yesterday? Aside from taking my dog to the vet, the rest of the day is a blur, as almost all of them are now. Nov. 22, 1963, on the other hand, stands out in near-perfect clarity.

It was Friday, and the bell rang, ending seventh period. I picked up my stuff and headed into the hall, on my way to French class. The hall was the usual swarm of kids moving between classes. Suddenly, Kathy Klein ran up to me, her eyes as big as pie plates.

“The president’s been shot!” she shouted.

“What?” I said, hearing perfectly what she said, but not believing it.

She repeated herself.

“You’re kidding?” I said, thinking she was putting me on.

“No,” she said. “It’s true!”

She looked distraught, and then I realized — as impossible as it seemed — she was telling the truth.

French class was a mess. When we were seated, the principal, Mr. Murphy, came over the intercom, giving the scant details he knew, the focal one being that JFK had not only been shot but had been killed. Mrs. Godson sat behind her desk, quietly sobbing, while I — and I’m sure all the other kids — had no clue how to react.

That was the last class of the day, and while I can’t remember if we stayed the whole 45 minutes, I think we did. No matter — within the hour school was over, and I wandered home, in a daze. None of it made any sense to me. And it made even less sense when they announced who the assassin was — an ex-Marine, ex-defector to Russia, ex-everything, who looked like God’s Own Loser.

Sunday, when Oswald got shot by Jack Ruby right in the Dallas police building, I pretty much checked out on overload.

Decade debits …

After JFK was killed, nothing in America seemed the same. Kennedy was a larger-than-life figure. He was young, a war hero, movie-star gorgeous, witty and charming. He had a beautiful wife who was sophistication personified. Plus, there were his siblings — dashing and dynamic, playing touch football on the White House lawn and able and ready to move mountains — figurative and literal.

And then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.

His replacement, LBJ, was JFK’s polar opposite. While he was a powerful senator and a lifelong political wheeler and dealer, I knew none of that, so to me he seemed like a nobody. And a sleazy nobody at that. He bestowed everyone in his family with the initials LBJ, including his dogs. Compared to JFK, LBJ was as charming as ringworm. The rest of his time in the presidency did nothing to change my mind, and from all the reading I’ve done on him since, I think my adolescent judgment was spot-on.

While I think the changes that followed JFK’s realm were coincidental rather than causal, they came fast, furious and freakier than anything I’d ever seen, or even imagined.

There was, of course, Vietnam. In 1964, when I graduated from high school, there were 23,000 American troops in Vietnam; a mere two years later, thanks to the draft, there were 385,000 … and counting. It touched almost everyone personally, and ruined its fair share of us as well.

Going along with draft were anti-war protests … and anti-war counter-protests.

And then the action ramped up. Peaceful and nonviolent protests faded as militants of all ilks raised all kinds of hell. They planted bombs, robbed banks, took over universities, and threatened and shouted down anyone who they thought opposed them.

The Generation Gap widened till parents and children seemed not just speaking separate languages, but seemed to be of separate species.

Things got so weird that in 1969 when I enlisted, one of my favorite profs said he was glad I did, because once I was in the Navy he knew I’d be in a safe place. I knew he was being sardonic, but I also knew, in some way, he was speaking the unadulterated truth.

… and credits

This is not to say there weren’t lots of good changes, because there were. We made great strides with civil rights and women’s rights. We became aware of the environment and how we were trashing it (something I simply was unaware of till the environmental movement reared its green head). Investigative journalism flourished. Arts and music came off their pedestals; rock ‘n’ roll went supernova.

I think one of the greatest changes in the ’60s and into the ’70s was making people aware of alternatives. Non-Western thought and practice became accessible. We found out about yoga, karate, sitars, Buddhism, meditation, folk music and dance, and so on. We learned about historical events never mentioned in school. People explored herbal medicine and vegetarianism. There were alternative schools, and alternative courses in traditional schools. Some folks rocked ethnic clothing and jewelry.

Of course a lot of the alternative things peeps experimented with ended in failure. Communes are a good example.

I’ve read that at their peak there were 200 communes in the U.S.; now only a few are still going strong. But commune living is hard work, something very few of us even attempt, much less endure. So almost all the communes failed, and almost all their members left, to make their way in the straight world.

So were the members of the failed communes failures themselves?

Not at all. I liken their life in the communes to my Navy experience. I never intended to make it a career, but I made the best of my time, and I got an invaluable education from it. I’m sure the same can be said for any ex-commune person.

No one can sum up the ’60 in a thousand words — or even a thousand pages. It was just too wild and wooly a decade, with maybe more radical changes than in any other 10 years of our history. It seemed to start not with New Year’s Eve but with JFK’s inauguration, though maybe that’s fanciful.

What isn’t fanciful is, for all the good and the bad, the enlightening and the infuriating, the delightful and the miserable, it will always be my Good Old Days.

And what about now? Could these times be my Good Old Days, too? I don’t feel that’s even slightly true.

But for the sake of my not turning into just another bitter old poop and wasting what time I have left on Terra, I sure better think they are.

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