Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Life in Four Colors (Part 19)

The fall of 1963 will always be marked in my mind--and in the minds of all of us who were old enough to know what was going on--by the assassination of President Kennedy in November. I remember most of that day quite well; we were outside, playing (or doing what passed for PE) at the area near the band practice field and the basketball goals near the corner of Shorter Avenue and Redmond Road. We were called back in early, and we didn't know why until we got back into the room. They told us that President Kennedy had been shot; I don't believe that they told us at that time that he was dead, and I'm not sure that they even knew then. Remember, this was 1963; there were no televisions or radios in the classroom, so no one had that level of instant access that we take for granted nowadays.

We understood that this was an important thing, but I don't believe that any of us ten-year-olds understood just how important it was. We began to feel the impact of the event more fully by observing the reactions of the adults around us--their sorrow, their confusion, their anxiety, their tears.

When I got home that day, my Mom was there but my Dad wasn't; even though he was a sports editor and didn't normally work with national non-sports news, the importance of the day's events had caused the Rome News-Tribune to keep everyone at work. The newspaper put out at least two editions that day--and that's one of the only days I recall when the paper went to press twice on the same day. That, too, told me that something very important had happened.

And of course, television made it clear to us just how important it was. For the first time I could remember, all programming was pre-empted for coverage of the President's assassination and the subsequent events over the next three days. "All" may sound more far-reaching than it was, since there was no cable television in 1963, and the only channels we received were the ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates from Atlanta and Chattanooga. But all programming on all of those channels was pre-empted for round-the-clock coverage, which also said to me "Important Things Are Happening."

I watched some of the programming; I remember being frustrated that some of my favorite morning and evening shows were replaced by the coverage, and I couldn't fully comprehend why they felt that it was necessary to do so. Kennedy was dead, I knew--but not airing my favorite shows made no sense to me. I didn't understand then the significance of a Presidential assassination, and the importance for all to see a smooth transition of government at this moment of crisis.

I also remember seeing the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby; I was actually watching television at that time, and neither my mother nor I were sure what we had seen. "Did that man shoot him?" I asked. Mom said that it looked like he did, but maybe that's not what happened; moments later, it became clear that was exactly what had happened. And the world seemed even more incomprehensible at that point.

I remember the funeral. I remember the solemn faces of the adults around me, and the sense that things weren't right with the world.

I like to think that the world was a more reasonable place then. Many of the adults I came into contact with through my parents or through school were not Kennedy supporters--but I never once heard jokes or derision or mockery of what had happened, nor did I ever hear any words of condescension or condemnation for Kennedy at that time. Regardless of political affiliation, we were Americans, and our President had been killed; I began to see that this was something much larger than I had ever envisioned before, and I was sad because so many others (whose judgment I respected, even when I didn't understand it) were sad.

Our world was reset at that point; every one of us old enough to remember that day will always, I suspect, have a fascination with Kennedy's assassination because it was such a pivotal event. There are few occurrences that leave the world a measurably different place before and after; the Kennedy assassination was one.

Had this been a comic book, the Presidential assassination would have led to superheroic efforts to track down the assassin, bring him to justice, and restore a sense of justice and right to America. But this wasn't a comic book. The answers weren't coming easy, and that left everyone even more worried, even more confused, even more shaken. And I, along with every fifth grader in my class, knew that the world would never be wholly the same.


The time from the President's assassination and burial until Christmas that year passed slowly; the holiday season unfolded like always, but the shadow of the dead President muted the Christmas lights and muffled the holiday sounds just a bit. For me, Christmas was good--as it always was, since my parents had always created lavish Christmases for me and for Kimberly, even when they had little money left over for themselves. I remember getting every Aurora monster model kit that I didn't already have, along with the only Testor's paint set that I ever owned. I usually bought individual square bottles of Testor's paint, but I could never save up enough money for that prepackaged array of colors. My parents gave me those paints that year, and I was even more excited than I was the first time I got a 64-crayon box of Crayolas. Unfortunately, monsters found themselves rather garishly clad for the first few post-Christmas weeks...

I also got comic books, books, a number of toys, and a Vacuform kit. The Vacuform was an intriguing toy; It was a heating element wit a series of metal molds and flat plastic squares. When the metal molds were placed on the unit and heated, an armature swung the plastic over the heated molds; pumping the vacuum device in the unit would pull the heated plastic in, making it follow the contours of the metal, creating a number of plastic toys that could then be glued, painted, and displayed. In effect, it was a small-scale plastic model making kit.

To this day, I can recall the remarkably distinctive smell of the heating plastic; I suspect I still have burn scars on the sides of my fingers from the dozens of times I clumsily touched the wrong place on the machine while working with the plastic. In retrospect, I have to wonder what toymaker thought that young kids and extremely hot metal was a good idea; but in the Christmas of 1963, I thought it was one of the most brilliant toys in history.

I was never particularly good at Vacuform casting and assembly, however, mostly because of my impatience. I was never willing to keep working at the vacuum pump to ensure the most precise detail; instead, I would watch until the plastic sheet had more or less assumed the form of the mold, then would eagerly pop the assembly up and remove the heated square of plastic to see how it looked. The loss of detail never really bothered me, though; these were toys that I had made, and that meant that they were good enough.

And it was one day in mid-January 1964, when I was sitting on the hardwood floor of my room playing with my Vacuform, that I first heard the sounds of the Beatles on the radio. I had heard about the Beatles before that time; Phil Patterson's sister had said something about them, but neither Phil nor I knew exactly what she was talking about. When the radio DJ mentioned that they were about to play a song by the Beatles, I paid attention.

What I heard was unlike anything I had heard on the radio before. The sound was engaging and infectious in a way that music had never been before. It's not that I hadn't liked music previously; I was constantly listening to music, and my family frequently insisted that I had learned to sing "Tom Dooley" and "Sixteen Tons" almost as soon as I learned to speak. But there was no music that I had felt was my music... at least, not until that moment. When I heard the Beatles, I knew that this was my music--and I knew that I wanted to hear more.

A week ot so later, my parents mentioned that they had read that the Beatles would be making an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in early February. Surely they were confused; Ed Sullivan was a program devoted to entertainment that would appeal to my parents, not to me. And my parents didn't seem like the target audience for the Beatles. But they assured me that they were correct, and I knew that I had to see this show.

So on February 9th, I was one of the 70 million who were enthralled by the Fab Four's first prime-time television appearance.

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