Monday, June 04, 2007

The End of Innocence

One of the great archetypal themes in literature is the coming of age theme. Each of us goes through an experience which reveals to us, suddenly or slowly, that the world is not necessarily the innocent place we had thought. Think of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huck in Huckleberry Finn. The protagonist usually moves from innocence to knowledge, or from immaturity to maturity, or from idealism to realism.

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


Anvilcloud said...

Bittersweet memories of those times.

Cathy said...

Donna - this is so strange. At a neighborhood gathering last night we discussed all the events about which you've just written.

It was so interesting to hear the varied experiences of our friends and how a few years difference in age created different perspectives.

We are 60 and 63 - My husband entered the army immediately after finishing medical school. There was no choice. During his residency at Fitzsimons in Denver he saw the broken bodies of the young men who had gone to Vietnam and were the lucky ones to return home.

Yes, a terrible loss of innocence.

My grandmother died on my Baccalaureate Sunday.

Pam said...

How I remember those days! And you are so right about the loss of innocence. The events of that time come back with such clarity, it's like watching a movie. So much that was good, so much that was not.

Mary said...


I'm ten years behind you but I do remember the events from the time JFK was assassinated. Being a young teen in the 60's was much different than being a young teen now. I think we were more aware of the world's issues, and our own dangers just beyond the fence.

It was a different time, a girls Catholic high school, I was surrounded by hippies on speed and "make love, not war" signs. Ready to revolt. Wow - sorry I rambled. This was a great post.

I hope your sister Denise is OK.

Dorothy said...

Oh Donna, another trip down memory lane, albeit a sad one this time. I recall exactly where I was sitting when the Cuban Missile Crisis was announced. I was a senior in high school and sitting in history class. I recall that feeling of dread, expecting the possibility of a war to begin. Then the day Kennedy was assassinated..again..working at my first job..the first thing I realized...hearing people in the hallway discussing the hadn't yet been announced Kennedy had died..and they were laughing about it. Remember the book "None Dare Call It Treason?" So many of the people where I worked were reading it. This was how I discovered I was working in the midst of many John Birch Society members.
Sad days indeed...November 22nd was 5 days before my 18th birthday.
I don't miss the 60's...not at all.