Commentary: The day that curtailed my childhood 50 years ago

Susan Hunter
Susan Hunter

It’s been 50 years since John Kennedy was shot. While Nov. 22, 2013 marks an anniversary, there have been many days during that half-century when I recalled what happened that day.

It was night for me, a 14-year-old who learned in Rome, Italy, that my president had been assassinated. My family was in Rome that fall, where my father, a professor, was studying at the American Academy.

That Friday, I was spending the night at my friend Sue Romano’s, when her mother entered the room where we were doing homework and eating yellow apples.

“Kennedy has been assassinated,” she said, and I’ll never forget that her face had lost its color and was mask-like.

We said, “What?” The words didn’t make sense to us.

“Assassination” was attached to the name Abraham Lincoln and other long-ago presidents, not to the young, handsome president who was the standard-bearer for all that was new and young in our country.

Assassinated. Our world had shifted as if by an earthquake, and I felt a chill take over my body.

A lesson in maturing

Sue and I walked several blocks to our friend Amy Olver’s apartment, because it was something we had to talk about. Amy had a large photo of Kennedy on her bedroom wall, and she was crying.

We stayed and tried to put our world together, forgetting that we hadn’t told Sue’s mother where we were going.

When she arrived to pick us up, she was angry. “You’re in the doghouse,” she said.

In actuality, we had grown up over the past hour, our fledgling independence lurched into being by tragedy.

A time of change

We entered a decade that was to be marked by killings, deaths of heroes and rock stars, and the end to the sometimes stifling world that our parents had created for us.

As a 14-year-old on that late fall evening, I thought of Jackie Kennedy and how she had lost a husband, and how I really wanted to be home.

Just a few years earlier, I had watched Kennedy take the oath of office on television on a cold January day.

And now he was dead.

Rome covered with JFK posters

The day after his assassination, hundreds of posters with large black-and-white photographs of Kennedy’s face that had been put up on every building and street corner in Rome.

There was to be no forgetting.

It would be months before we saw the footage of Kennedy’s motorcade passing though Dealey Plaza, of him slumping against Jackie after the first shot and a handcuffed Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death during a national newscast.

Returning to a different United States

Momentous changes had taken place in our country during the six months my family was abroad.

There was Kennedy’s death, and in August, Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

When we arrived home in January, we landed at an airport that was now named Kennedy, and I noticed a difference inside that airport.

There was a braver, bolder feeling displayed by the African-Americans I saw there. They spoke louder, laughed harder than they used to. Perhaps they weren’t hiding in the shadows anymore.

New ideas, freedoms and inspiration

It was a subtle change, but a powerful one and forecast a world of new ideas, freedoms and inspiration that Kennedy had helped to create.

Fifty years later, I remember how glad I was, as a girl, that he was president and how his violent death curtailed my childhood and shattered the idealism of that long ago time.

Susan Hunter is a longtime local journalist and former editor of The Valley Gazette, another Hersam Acorn newspaper and website.