GENESSA -- THE LONG FIFTIES: JFK, the Beatles and the Onset of the Sixties!
by Gail M Feldman
The Fifties Were a Long, Long Decade; Lee Harvey Oswald Smashed it to Bits
The fifties were the longest decade in modern history; they began in 1945 and didn't end universally until 1963, although for people of my generation (yes, I am a baby boomer) it all ground to a halt in 1962. Even so there was a year-long gap before the sixties took hold, and had Camelot not been shattered there is no telling if or when they might have arrived.
At the onset of the chronological sixties, I was seven years old, in the third grade and unaware that my best friend, Betsy M., was about to throw me over. (I've written of this before and I'm sure I will again: see DOLLS.) Her mother forbade me entry to their house unless I said I loved Jesus Christ. Betsy met me at the door, pleading, "Just say it. You don't have to mean it."
"I can't," I tried to explain. "I just can't. I'm Jewish."
Betsy had the grandest collection of stuffed animals in her room, including a kitten made (and smelling strongly) of real rabbit fur, but I never saw them again.
Around the same time, my elementary school suddenly was plastered with posters of a funny-looking guy I wasn't quite sure wasn't Alfred E. Neuman from Mad magazine. He had the same ears and the same red hair, but his smile was much nicer; he smiled with his mouth and with his eyes. I asked my parents who he was, and they told me his name was John Kennedy and he was running for president. Did we like him, I asked. "I like Johnson better," said my mother, mysteriously (for I had seen no posters of this Johnson), but yes, she admitted, we liked Kennedy.
We liked Senator Kennedy so much that when he came stumping to Levittown, New Jersey (once known as Willingboro and again so known after our departure in the summer of 1963) we drove to the plaza to catch a glimpse of him. My father held me up to I could shake the senator's hand.
From then on I was a fan. I had picture postcards of President (as of course he became) Kennedy all over my closet door. I no longer thought him odd-looking.
I did not understand the Cuban Missile Crisis when it happened, nor the Kennedys' part in it. All I knew was what everyone else in my school new: that the bombs would come, the adults would be unable to protect us and we would all die horribly. The fact that it never happened did nothing to dissuade us from this belief, which many of us hold, if only subconsciously, to this day. My subconscious certainly was full of this fear at the time; my nightmares were all of nuclear holocaust.
When my family moved to Maryland I found myself riding a school bus for the first time in my life. My junior high school, unlike my elementary school, was huge, multileveled and mazelike. I sat in each class with a different group of students, according to a different schedule each day of the week, running up and down stairs between bells, hoping I was in the right corridor, on my way to the right classroom. I was never quite sure where I was supposed to be.
There were no pictures of Kennedy in the hallways, but I could feel his presence nearby. I'd been to visit the White House. My school band conductor and his kind wife often invited me (a lowly drummer girl) to concerts at Constitution Hall, where sometimes the Kennedys too attended. In late '63 a whole gang of us were taken to the White House lawn to watch a performance of the Royal Scottish Guard, who played bagpipes and danced with swords. The President came out to wave to us, Jackie at his side. Caroline, already a demure young lady, smiled. John-John hid shyly behind his father.
They left a charming image in my memory which even today cannot be tainted by anything I've learned about then since, or by my experience of publicity tricks, dirty politics or manipulation of the masses. Despite all that, this one image remains pure.
Then, one Friday, just before sixth period (Geography with Mrs. C,. on an upper floor, at the end of the corridor -- if i was careful I could navigate straight there) I saw one of my classmates, a boy, standing against the wall outside our classroom, between the front and back doors. He had an odd smile on his face, somewhat like the Alfred E. Neuman grin that had been missing from those campaign posters, but there was no smile in his eyes. "The President's been shot," he said.
"That's not funny," said I, indignant, and marched in through the front door, crossing the room to take my assigned seat (second aisle from the window, second desk from the front).
Mrs. C. was a little late, and I thought that slightly odd too. When she came in she didn't say anything to us, which was odder still. The whole room felt odd. We were obviously waiting for something but I couldn't imagine what. It never for an instant occurred to me that the statement of the smiling unsmiling boy in the hallway had anything to do with the tension that kept building until the public address system burst into business and Mrs. C. finally drew a breath.
You know what the P.A. said. Whether or not you existed on November 22 that year you know what happened. As you remember or have been told or can imagine, we were sent home. There was no sixth period that day. The buses were already waiting for us, the drivers grave and subdued. I can't remember the ride home; I think we traveled in a shocked silence. I do remember that my parents were home already, and surely my sister, still a grade-school student, was there too. The television was on. It stayed on. Can we have slept? I don't see how. No, we must have stayed up all night, my weeping parents and their weeping daughters, our bewildered dog, and the television full of shocked newscasters, shocked witnesses, shocked policemen, shocked survivors, a shocked widow and her shocked orphans, and a shocked new president, the one my mother had said she preferred, being sworn in on Air Force One.
It could only have been moments later that we saw Jack Ruby shoot the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, live -- shoot him dead, that is, on live TV, in living black and white.
Then we knew what we had only begun to know consciously when our bosses, coworkers, teachers, fellow students, neighbors had broken to us the unbelievable, that presidents were not only assassinated in history books; when the television broke for us what we had thought unbreakable: our belief in our own invulnerability, as a nation, as a people and yes even as the children of our elected father, the youngest president. If his family, the First Family, could be orphaned, then so could we, his second family, and so had we been. It had not taken missiles to destroy us, after all. Still, we did not yet know that the whole world had gone mad and stayed mad. Ruby taught us that.
I was then just shy of my twelfth birthday. I still have pictures from my party in February: me and two friends from yet another school, and my most precious present, a quite ordinary willow plate; me and my dog, Trixie, both smiling, both seemingly recovered from the huge event which in retrospect marks the then unrecognized death of the fifties.
That spring, my mother and I took a little radio into a nearby woods and went walking. The weather was mild. The news on the radio wasn't: Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev (who had banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations, and who deserves as much credit for accepting Kennedy's proposal as Robert does for advising his brother to ignore Kruschev's ill-advised second letter) had disappeared. We hurried home, frightened and upset.
My schoolmates showed no concern at all over this new wrinkle. They were busy screaming, fainting and otherwise carrying on about a quartet of hitherto unknown English musicians whose hair was really quite short, considering what followed. Our parents found it shockingly long. Strangely enough, they had become more, rather than less, easily shocked, while we grew cynical and idealistic all at once.
If ever the world needed the Beatles, it needed them in 1964. They were a spicy balm for our wounds and a diversion from our worries. They were young, fresh, cheerful, vibrant... invulnerable....
Credit: Keira © www.sxc.hu/Keira