I was 5-years-old on Friday, November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Even we kids could perceive the paradigm shift that took place as a result of that horrendous event and recall the somber and mournful tone of the next few days.
My parents and I were living a Mad Men kind of life on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Like JFK, my dad served in the Navy in World War II (but my father was younger and not an officer) and like Don Draper, he wore those gray flannel suits with skinny ties. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, my mother was pretty, slim, stylish and had jet black hair that she wore in various iterations of the First Lady's coiffures. In the summer we went on vacations to Cape Cod and the Hamptons. My family was fully a part of the New Frontier.
The first tip-off that something extraordinary had happened was the disappearance from late afternoon television of all the violent and goofy visual fare that we kids ingested before dinner. No Three Stooges, No George Reeves' Superman, No Looney Tunes' cartoons featuring exploding devices from the Acme Company. TV was all news all the time at a time when that kind of programming was previously non-existent. The adults were transfixed by the news coverage for the next few days and it seemed like a pall had descended on all the grownups.
It is said that America changed on that day and they're right. The 50s probably ended on that Friday afternoon in Dallas. In the coming months and years everything really did change. Music changed. Clothing, fashions and hairstyles changed radically. American sensibilities changed. The trajectory of November 22, 1963 would propel us towards the tumultuous 60s and our modern era.
The world of 1963 was a much simpler time without computers, portable phones of any kind, a time without color television (for most of us) or any way to record a show and play it back - and only a few channels to watch, not 200 or more of them; A time of cars and homes without air conditioning; a time without ATM machines - if you ran out of cash on the weekend you were flat out of luck because no one had credit cards either. It was a time when stores were closed on Sundays and most Sundays you saw your extended family who all lived somewhat nearby. It was a time when work really was between 9 and 5 and somehow without working 50-60 hours per week and without typewriters that corrected, without photocopy machines and without calculators, people built things, deals were done and money made.
Maybe it was because I was so young in 1963, but compared to today, it seemed as if so much of the world was young then. People weren't regularly living into their 80s and 90s. Our parents were young and had us young. The Baby Boom had turned out legions of kids and they were swarming everywhere. No one made play dates in the 60s, you just bounded out of your house and tons of kids could be found in the street or at the playground. You ran-off to play outside for hours on end and no one worried you might be abducted or molested. People were courteous and formal. You addressed people as "Mr.," "Mrs." or "Miss" if you weren't very close to them - and children never called adults by their first names. You got dressed up to go to the movies, to a restaurant or to the theater -- even to take a trip on a plane.
In 1963 we were also faced with the very real specter of Armageddon and the Cold War along with the reality of so many diseases that could end our lives in an untimely fashion for which cures or manageability have been found today.
Like Rip van Winkle, I look around today 50 years after November 1963 and can barely recognize the American landscape compared to the way it was then. How much more bewildered and bemused must people over 70 be with America today. Twenty-five years ago most Americans were alive when JFK was shot and could recall where they were that day. Now on the 50th Anniversary, most Americans here were not born by 1963 and that 60s world is fading slowly into the mists of history in that gauzy way my generation probably thinks of the 20s, 30s and 40s.
Thankfully, no matter the intense acrimony and polarization in Washington these days, we're not assassinating our Presidents. If the biggest challenge we face today is the nuances of health insurance and not the end of mankind in a nuclear holocaust, then we're probably doing pretty well. That life expectancy has soared and infant mortality plummeted, that our material comforts and conveniences are unparalleled in the history of mankind means we've made a lot of progress since November of '63. JFK who spoke often about the world of tomorrow, tragically, didn't get a chance to see any of it.