It was an unnaturally warm day for late November, and we were out on the asphalt playground and parking lot in our shirtsleeves to get our pictures taken, we being grades 1 through 12 of St. Frances Cabrini’s elementary and high school.
The idea was to situate a photographer atop the high school, that being the only way, short of shooting from a helicopter or small plane, to capture the entire student body, now numbering close to 2,000.
It was classic baby boom stuff: the parish itself had been founded only 16 years earlier, in the middle of what had been a corn field; thousands of tract homes sprang up where, a year or two earlier, cattle had placidly grazed. By the time the burgeoning crop of postwar children were ready for first grade, a hastily built school had opened its doors, and it continued to grow, expanding into the bean field across the street when the first class of eighth graders graduated into high school.
Sustained by contributions and the unpaid or barely paid labor of nuns and priests, the two schools offered virtually free education to a generation of factory workers’ kids, a huge number of whom would become the first members of their family to go on to college. Academic standards were remarkably high; moral standards, enforced by a psychological reign of terror with origins in medieval days, left something to be desired.
But apart from a few malcontents like yours truly, the students were a happy lot, as were their teachers and parents. Almost everybody was happy in those days, and why not? Detroit was on the move; so were Michigan and America. Despite periodic downturns in the auto industry, people were better off and living more comfortably than they or their parents could have ever dreamed possible. Vietnam, where a handful of “advisers” had begun to run into some trouble, was a barely perceptible blip on the horizon, and even the country’s most nettlesome issue, that of segregation and racism, looked, in the afterglow of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, to be moving toward resolution.
King’s appeal to the better and higher nature of the American public dovetailed neatly with John F. Kennedy’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you” of two and a half years earlier; the two speeches set the tone for what was shaping up to be the most idealistic and hopeful of decades.
At least that’s how it felt for those of us who had watched JFK’s inauguration as impressionable 13 and 14 year olds. Here at last was a president who wasn’t some old bald guy, who looked and acted like an awesome older brother instead of the grumpy dads and granddads who had always been in charge of things before.
Kids a few years older than us, their aspiring adult cynicism more acutely honed, might have felt differently; I know my parents did. Although they’d voted for Kennedy, and were pleased that a Democrat had finally retaken the White House, they thought of him as a lightweight and, more importantly, not nearly left wing enough.
Me, I didn’t know or care about that; as far as I was concerned, the president had a cool hairstyle and made good speeches. Anything above and beyond that was gravy. I might have been a surly juvenile delinquent out to destroy society, but there was still a part of me that wanted, desperately wanted to believe in something, and here was a leader who, if you took him at face value, was all about belief.
The torch had been passed, he told us, to a new generation – surely that must mean us, not our stodgy old parents – and together we would mount a “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor,” he said, “will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Heady stuff, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, though nearly half a century has passed. A bitingly cold and dismal winter’s day, the kind that Detroit manufactures in abundance, but our 8th grade classroom was buzzing with excitement and more joie de vivre than I’d ever seen the nuns allow to go unchecked.
Interruptions to our educational routine were exceedingly rare, but on this January 20, a 12” black and white TV had been brought in so we could watch the first Catholic president take the reins of power. It had never occurred to me to wonder whether the nuns who taught us were Democrats or Republicans – hell, I had spent half of elementary school bewildered as to whether they were female, male, or a third as yet unnamed sex.
The overwhelming majority of the students came from Democratic families, but it was clear that the reason we were supposed to be grateful had more to do with religion than politics. These were the same nuns, after all, who on Fridays during football season would lead us in prayers for a Notre Dame victory, even though the Fighting Irish plied their trade more than 200 miles away and the only connection between them and us was our shared Catholicism.
Washington DC was buried under snow and bitterly cold that morning; a defective heater set fire to the lectern as Cardinal Cushing recited a rambling prayer, and an 86 year old Robert Frost, blinded by the sunlight, struggled to read a poem dedicated to the new president invoking, “A golden age of poetry and power, of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”
And for a while it was, or at least it remained easy enough to imagine it was. The right wing – a rather tame lot compared with today’s pseudo-populist rabble, but belligerent and vindictive enough for those simpler times – launched the sort of hate campaign against JFK that we would later see leveled against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Our slightly older brothers and sisters answered Kennedy’s call to arms and upped the ante by challenging many of society’s underpinning assumptions.
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” proclaimed the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1962 a wholesomely liberal organization that by decade’s end would morph into a ragtag army of mad bombers and revolutionary guerrillas.
By the fall of 1963 there was considerable disappointment and frustration with JFK, even among his liberal supporters. Congress blocked most of his programs, and while the quality of his speeches and the glamour he had brought to previously staid and uninspiring Washington continued unabated, he hadn’t produced much of substance. Except, of course, taking us through the Cuban missile crisis, six days in which the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Kids like me alternated between hoping for Armageddon – anything to alleviate our teenage boredom – and succumbing, in more private moments, to unabashed and unabated terror.
The crisis ended on my 15th birthday, and soon afterward I took up drinking with sufficient force that the rest of my teen years faded in and out of consciousness like a late night AM radio signal from seven states away. That Friday afternoon in November, as we milled about the schoolyard waiting for the photographers to finish their business so we could be let out for the day, the main thing on my mind was the bottle of whiskey I had stashed away and was planning on guzzling behind the football bleachers that night.
It started as a few whispers and distraught looks among the faculty, and turned into a tide of rising voices passing ever more frantic rumors back and forth. Something big was going on, that was clear. Had the Cuban matter flared up again? Were we about to be attacked? What, the president’s been shot? No, that’s crazy, but wait, I heard the principal say it was true, but it’s only a minor wound, he’s going to be fine. Then why were some of the teachers barely able to conceal their tears as they tried to herd us back to class?
Someone produced a transistor radio in time to hear the announcement that the president was dead. That same teenage apocalyphilia that had hoped for nuclear war while quavering in fear of it was at work here: it would be too boring if the president suffered only a superficial wound, but for him actually to die? No, that was taking it too far; a sickening but silent scream welled up inside of me, was swallowed and buried forever.
Thus began a dull, thudding several days subsumed with nothing but assassination and agony. Like most of America I sat morbidly glued to the TV, but eventually I could take no more and heard that bottle of whiskey calling my name. I told my mother I wanted to go out and she said she understood, that naturally I’d want to be together with my friends to share our grief, and I thought, no, Mom, you don’t understand, what I want is to get blind, stinking drunk and stay that way forever.
And I did, get blind, stinking drunk, that is; even with all my youthful avidity I couldn’t quite manage forever, though I gave it the old college try. The 60s were over, almost before they’d begun; at least the shining, idealistic, innocent and hopeful 60s were; a new, bitter, nihilistic and angry 60s hove into view, and I hopped right on board.
Oh, it didn’t happen all at once. There would still be fun and games and frivolity: two months later the Beatles came to America and everything seemed momentarily fresh and cool and mod haircut-stylish for a minute. But by summer we were at war, the hair grew shaggier, the slogans angrier, and the drugs more potent and ubiquitous. “Now the trumpet summons us again,” President Kennedy had declared; what a laugh, we sneered. “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”? More like put your head above the parapet and they’ll shoot you down like dogs.
Some have argued that Kennedy was just another politician, that he served only the interests of the rich and well-connected, that it was he who launched us on the fatal excursion into Southeast Asia that would lay waste to a generation and mark the beginning of the end of American ascendancy. This may be true; I do not know. He did not live long enough for history, at least as I read it, to render a fair judgment on who he was or what he might have become.
What I do know is that something more than a president died on that afternoon in 1963. For my generation, the much and often justly maligned baby boomers, it was the day that innocence and hope passed away, to be replaced by an anger and arrogance that would ultimately devolve into the self-obsessed spiral of mindless consumption and blithe disregard for consequences that today threatens to envelop and destroy the planet.
Would we have had a chance if those bullets had gone astray or never been fired? Could the new “golden age of poetry and power” have come to fruition had our Lancelot not been struck down and replaced with the old Cold Warrior Lyndon Johnson, whose prosaic arm-twisting produced the down payment on a second New Deal but whose blinkered hubris about Vietnam would tear this country apart at the seams?
Nowadays, people are loath to believe that any leader or party or movement can make a significant difference, that our fate is written in the stars, and that those stars have most likely turned against us. Perhaps they are right, perhaps there is nothing that could have been done or even should have been done to arrest America’s seemingly irreversible decline. But there are still those among us, though our numbers decrease with age and time, who would like to believe that for at least one brief shining moment it could have been so very different.