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A ‘60s kid remembers the day of JFK

Unless you were a child of the ’60s, it’s almost impossible to grasp how monstrous the assassination of John F. Kennedy was.

We grew up in a bizarro world where everything was new — television, cars, music, schools, space travel, the very houses we lived in — and everything was trending up.

Our parents had survived the Depression and World War II. And now they were prospering and raising us in an amazing, anything-is-possible world.

And President Kennedy was the symbol of all of that. Young. Idealistic. Energetic. Optimistic. Smart. Witty. Handsome.

He wasn’t just our President. He was our ideal. And then he was gone.

I remember being on a playground when the first details surfaced. It was a gray but unseasonably warm Friday — the original Black Friday — outside long-gone Deerfield Grammar School, which would give way the following year to brand-new Alan B. Shepard Jr. High, named for our first astronaut, a JFK priority.

After we got in from our lunchtime playground games and sat at our little wooden desks, there was a pall. Teachers whispered things, then led us in a moment of silence.

We stumbled around in a fog that whole weekend, watching our crackly black-and-white TVs — color was coming soon! — in horror as the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down before our eyes.

It was sort of like that second plane hitting the World Trade Center. Both horrors showed that the world as we knew it had changed forever.

Presidents are often defined by the eras they serve in, the challenges they face, the changes they signal. How would we remember Abraham Lincoln, for example, if the Mexican War had come on his watch rather than the Civil War?

Just as President Obama is an inspiring role model to a large segment of our population today, JFK held that role 50 years ago.

Both have their detractors; all Presidents do. Obama must wrestle with health care, terrorism, a wobbly economy. For President Kennedy, the issues were civil rights, the Cold War, a nation trying to figure out how best to use its prosperity to make the world a better place.

He was a leader who transcended — the first President to take advantage of television. FDR was the master of radio. Reagan took the reach of television communication to a new level. And JFK also knew how to bring a nation into the conversation, the thought process.

The Cuban Missile crisis. The integration of the South, particularly at Ole Miss. The inauguration speech: “. . . ask what you can do for your country.’’

And then, in an instant, all of that leadership was transferred to unappetizing Lyndon Johnson (the first LBJ, to all you LeBron James fans).

Ironically, Johnson, an accomplished politician, was able to push through the civil-rights legislation that Kennedy, a newcomer, couldn’t. And where Johnson bullishly escalated Vietnam, a war where JFK had first dipped the American toe, it’s interesting to ponder whether Kennedy would have headed off that divisive disaster.

We’ll never know. Chances are, we’ll never know the whole story of who and why President Kennedy was assassinated, either. That Oswald story is way too simple.

What is certain, though, is that a beloved president’s brains were splattered in Dallas 50 years ago. And a nation was forever changed.

It was a reminder that we weren’t nearly as safe as we thought. From that point on, we still were children growing up in prosperity. From there, though, we grew up knowing the world was a much scarier place.

Herb Gould has written for the Sun-Times for more than three decades.

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