In a couple of weeks, I plan to attend my 45th high school reunion. This looming event has me recalling the events of 1962. On June 8, 1962 I graduated from high school. That date, in addition to marking the end of my secondary schooling, was significant for two other reasons. June 8 is my sister’s birthday, and that year she turned 5 (you can do the math and figure out which birthday she will be celebrating this year!)—we did not celebrate that birthday together, as she was in Africa with my parents, and I was in the U.S.
June 8 was also the day my grandmother died. She was my mother’s mother, and of my four grandparents the most strict and stern with her grandchildren. Her death, while noted, did not dampen my high school graduation one bit.
In the fall of 1962, I began college. There is a golden haze that surrounds my recollection of that fall. It did not last. On October 14, 1962 the U.S. learned, through images taken from high altitude planes, that Cuba was building up missile capability. The Soviet Union was supplying them with armed warheads, and the cold war suddenly got very hot.
As a group of my college classmates and I drove to the nearest mall, we listened to the car radio news as the crisis was unfolding. We were all somber as the distant possibility crossed our minds—we might be on the verge of World War III. The U.S. and the Soviet Union locked in a staring contest—and the Soviets blinked. Our high school innocence began to crack.
In November 2, 1963, the president of what was then an obscure country, South Vietnam, was assassinated. Ngo Dinh Diem was one of a long line of U.S. backed leaders in Vietnam who failed to meet American expectations. With the long view of history, we now know he was assassinated with the tacit approval of the CIA and possibly with President Kennedy’s knowledge.
If that is true, how ironic that twenty days later, in the fall of 1963 Kennedy was to suffer the same fate, and thus the innocent years would end. A college freshman, I was on the debate team and on Friday November 22, 1963 we were headed to Fordham University in New York City for an intercollegiate tournament. As the news came in of the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas, we gathered in stunned silence. When confirmation came that in fact JFK had died, our innocence died with that news.
1963 marked the end of the innocent years for me, and for many others. Of course, as the rest of the 1960s unfolded, there were triumphs and more tragedies: civil rights won, Mississippi burned, Woodstock rocked, Martin Luther King assassinated, then three months later, Bobby Kennedy too.
We never recovered our wide-eyed innocence. We had come of age. Now we knew—and with knowledge, the paradise of youth was lost.
Photo of JFK addressing nation during Cuban Missile Crisis from