When we changed, on Nov. 22, 1963


Some days are etched on my brain like prison tattoos. For example, I know within a few feet of where I was sitting just after lunch on Nov. 22, 1963. I'd finished lunch and drifted into the stone gym behind the old Dora High School building. I was sitting in the bleachers about midway up. 

I sat there waiting for the coach to blow the whistle signaling that the PE class was about to begin.  Several of my friends were playing horse, and shooting hoops. The sound of bouncing basketballs and squeaking tennis shoes on a hardwood floor echoed off the stone walls. 

The food sat heavy my stomach, and I contemplated taking a nap but thought better of it because my friends were known for pulling pranks on sleeping buds.

Suddenly, a kid ran into the gym, screaming at the top of his lungs: "Kennedy's dead. Somebody shot the president."

I was trying to make sense of what I’d heard. Looking around, some of the other kids looked stunned, too. 

Wrapping my brain around what he was saying was a struggle. But as word spread among those in the gym, the shoes stopped squeaking, and the ball stopped bouncing. It took a while for the echo to stop reverberating. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Could this be true? 

A sense of sadness came over me. The kids talked in hushed tones. The PE teacher came in and confirmed that what the kid said was true. The details were sketchy, but President Kennedy had just been killed in Dallas, Texas. 

The next few days were a jumble. But on the following Monday, NBC News broadcast the funeral on television. Some students watched the funeral on a black-and-white TV in the school auditorium. 

Later, when I saw John F. Kennedy's baby boy "John-John" step up and salute his daddy's coffin as it passed in the funeral procession, I cried. I’m pretty sure there were others who cried, too. The day President Kennedy was buried, it was "John-John's" third birthday.

In retrospect, I think our country changed that day. It was lost in a wisp of smoke from the barrel of a rifle in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. 

Within a few years, the Rev. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis in April 1968, and JFK's younger brother Robert, who was a candidate for president, was assassinated in Los Angeles a few months later in June. The list of people killed in the '60s goes on and on.

I often wonder what path America would have taken had JFK not been killed on that Friday in Dallas. 

When I look back at reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show," they remind me of what America felt like to me – until those shots rang out in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. 

Rick Watson is a columnist and author. His latest book, "Life Goes On," is available on Amazon.com. You can contact him via email at rick@rickwatson-writer.com.