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An Innocence Lost: In a Flash, the Idealism of an Entire Generation Is Cut Down in Dallas

It was a glorious time of energy and hope. The placid ’50s were behind us. The rocket-fueled ’60s beckoned like a beacon shining down from the heavens. No light has ever shone so brightly.

Baby boomers had no nickname yet. They were just children, the next generation born to the greatest generation. But they were already being groomed for extraordinary lives in extraordinary times.

There was no Vietnam, no Watergate, no al-Qaida.

No Jackson State. No Kent State. No Attica.

There was only Camelot.

Oh, God, we were so young, so naive, so sure of ourselves and the possibility of the future.

We heard the call: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” And we wanted to respond.

There was no school that Inauguration Day in 1960. A snowstorm had blanketed the Northeast. It seemed that we were supposed to be home to hear that message, to see that young and vibrant man — hatless and coatless, immune to those freezing temperatures — captivate the nation.

It all seemed so right. The future was endless, the opportunities boundless.

The Bay of Pigs shook us. The Cuban Missile Crisis united us. JFK excited us and Jackie charmed us.

But then, in an instant, it was all gone.

In a blur, there was a report of a shooting.

A shooting?

Then there were more reports of injuries.

In Dallas?

Then, the most trusted newsman in America, Walter Cronkite, was on the television, interrupting the afternoon soaps.

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, (glancing up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

A generation earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, America awoke to a new reality. A shocking surprise attack. We were at war, and nothing would ever be the same. As one contributor to the Valley News’ Kennedy anniversary package put it, “I remember hearing people talk about the attack on Pearl Harbor — the shock, the horror, the feeling of somehow being betrayed. Now I understood. This was the Pearl Harbor of our generation.”

How true.

And like Pearl Harbor did a generation earlier, the Kennedy assassination changed this generation forever.

This was so apparent from reading the reminiscences from Upper Valley residents.

All shared similar stories of that day — hearing the first shocking news, hunkering down in front of those black-and-white TVs for days, watching the police parade Lee Harvey Oswald before the cameras and then seeing Jack Ruby gun him down. The flag-draped casket in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The funeral procession. John Jr., on his third birthday, saluting.

The tears, the questions, the sadness.

But nearly half of the 50 or so letters and emails the newspaper received contained another thread. Reader after reader wrote of one common denominator, one thing that would define this generation through the violence of the upcoming decade.

This was more than the loss of a president.

This was a loss of an ideal, a loss of innocence.

Letter after letter repeated that refrain. Letter after letter recalled those dark days, days that seemed to get darker as we grew older.

How was that fair to us, just entering our teenage years, those rites-of-passage years?

Who would we look to now for direction?

Our parents? Not likely.

Our government? Not ever again.

The void was so sudden, so deep, the pain so sharp, the loss so great.

You want to know why the ’60s turned out the way they did? Go back to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and you will find the first crack in a generation’s immortality. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Over and over, our letter writers let out their grief. Fifty years later the scars can still be seen, the heartache still felt.

“Happy days were over for most of us. The age of innocence was left behind,” wrote one. “The hope and promise represented by the youthful president was gone,” declared another.

Many of the writers saw that change through the actions of their parents. Many wrote of their sad faces, hollow eyes. We expect our parents to be strong, to be able to handle any situation.

But we had never seen them like this.

Never seen them in adult pain.

“My father is sitting on the stairs beside the telephone table, crying and eating dates,” one letter writer put it, describing the three or four days she and her family spent watching the events unfold on TV.

“It’s the only time I can remember seeing my father cry.”

Those same tears — but for a happier reason — were shed some three years earlier when Kennedy stood on the Capitol’s East Portico and declared, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

They were tears of joy that day — the joy of hearing a voice that spoke directly to each of us. Inspired by that statement of purpose, uplifted by those words of hope, young people around the nation rallied to their young president’s initiative.

One Lebanon High School graduate wrote: “I considered myself one of President Kennedy’s ‘new generation.’ I felt, as did many college-age youth, that President Kennedy spoke to me, especially during the campaign. We were ready to join him in trying to make our country and the world a better and more peaceful place. Yes, I was one of the many idealistic young people beginning to get involved in campus causes, motivated in large measure by the words and example of our president.”

But the shots that rang out in Dallas that day cut down everyone’s hopes and dreams. We were learning a cruel lesson, a lesson we would, unfortunately, relive throughout the next 10 years: Violence is America’s baseline. To paraphrase Jack Kerouac: “When God wants to get our attention, he does it with blood.”

The blood that stained Jackie Kennedy’s pink outfit that day stained an entire nation. We still are trying to cleanse ourselves 50 years later. Still trying to recapture those days of hope and innocence.

One writer, who was 10 years old at the time of the assassination, recalled: “The world had changed. My mother walked over to the big picture window in our brand-new split-level home. Across the barren, treeless 1960s style development, other stay-at-home mothers were standing in front of their big picture windows too, silent, simply looking out at each other. They knew, too.”

Donald Mahler is the sports editor of the Valley News . He can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com.

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