The Kennedy assassination—the day the Fifties ended

Guest post by Michael Olesker

Sometimes you try to tell the kids about the killing of John F. Kennedy, and what it did to America, and they look at you as if you’re talking about Ferdinand Magellan. Fifty years ago? Come on, Pop, try to live in the present tense, will you?

But, precisely half a century later, November 22, 1963, lingers in the mind the way that an older generation still recalls Pearl Harbor, or a younger one remembers September 11, 2001. For a lot of us, we were hearing the worst news of our lives.

I was a freshman at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. When I got to my one o’clock class that Friday I overheard snatches of a couple of  conversations. Something about a shooting. Something about Kennedy. And the two somehow, unimaginably, attached.

“You didn’t hear?” one classmate asked. “The president was shot in Dallas, Texas. They don’t know how bad yet.”

Then the instructor walked into the room. He was a squat fellow with a flat-top haircut whose name was Fluke, and he spoke to us in tones of overt sneers.

“Everybody just sit there,” he ordered. “I’ve got a lecture to deliver. And when I’m done, then you can find out whether or not the president’s dead.”

So we sat there. Of course we did. We were a generation raised in the 1950s, and conditioned to respect authority figures, and this was the era’s unofficial closing hour. And so we sat there and listened when we should have stormed out the door.

When I did the reporting that led to my new book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, I started with the premise that Kennedy’s assassination was the day the 1950s ended, no matter what the calendar claimed. The ‘50s was hula hoops and children in Davy Crockett coonskin hats. It was college kids on panty raids, which were the closest thing to actual sex back then. When the ‘60s arrived, those same college kids were out in the streets chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Of the dozens of people I interviewed for my latest book, everybody recalled the awful specifics of Nov. 22, 1963—and that entire weekend. It was not only the killing of a president, but the coming of age of television news. America spent that weekend watching Jack Ruby emerge from the shadows, watching a little boy in short pants salute his father’s casket, watching a bugler play Taps at haunted Arlington National Cemetery.

Those awful days have stayed with us for half a century, and if we live for half a century more, the shock of that time will linger.

olesker_front_stoopsMichael Olesker wrote a column for the Baltimore Sun for twenty-five years. He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s.