Carnett: We were changed by events of Nov. 22, 1963

It was one of the most shocking and appalling historical events of my lifetime.

In some regards it became the defining moment for my generation.

I speak of the assassination of the president of the United States 50 years ago this week. A demented gunman took down the vibrant young American leader, John F. Kennedy, in Dallas.

My peer group was shattered.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, I was an 18-year-old Orange Coast College sophomore. The inconceivable happened that morning, and the innocence exhibited by my generation to that moment was forever violated. The music died.

The nation mourned, but we idealistic young college and high school students were particularly devastated. In the harshest possible manner, Camelot was finished and it was time for us to grow up.

Many did — too quickly.

As I have said before in this column, I awoke that bright November morning at 11 a.m., alone in my family's Eastside Costa Mesa home. My parents were both working, and my two younger siblings were in school. I hadn't gotten home until long after midnight after participating in the opening night performance of a student theater production. Following the final curtain, cast members had gathered at Bob's Big Boy restaurant on 17th Street to celebrate a successful opening.

I groggily climbed from bed, poured a bowl of Grape Nuts and turned on the TV. I'd already missed a couple of morning classes but had time to make my 1 p.m. seminar.

What greeted me on the screen was the image of a large banquet hall with people milling about. The announcer said something to the effect that this "was where the president was to have delivered his luncheon speech."

Why the change in plans, I wondered?

Then came a blow to my solar plexus. "The president has been shot." What? I put the cereal bowl down.

Things were chaotic on screen, and information leaked slowly. Then, at 11:38 a.m. (Pacific Time), Walter Cronkite — the nation's revered news anchor — broke in to report the unthinkable. In a voice cracking with emotion, he said our charismatic young president was dead.


I quickly dressed and drove to school. I needed to be with friends.

As I entered OCC's student center I saw students weeping, speaking in hushed tones or sitting in stunned silence. No one could make sense of what had happened. Students were inconsolable.

I found a table of friends and pulled up a chair. No one smiled. No glib remarks were made. I skipped my 1 p.m. class, as did almost everyone else on campus.

Later, I went to my car in the parking lot and lay across the front seat. I needed privacy. I gazed up at a leaden sky and wept for maybe the first time since adolescence.

The nation was glued to the television all weekend and to the state funeral Monday, Nov. 25. Classes were canceled. We watched the casket taken by caisson across the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Arlington National Cemetery. For the first time, we saw the gravesite on the hill — and the eternal flame. I vowed to one day visit it and ultimately did.

America's heart was broken, and citizens embraced the heroic young widow in black and her two beautiful children.

Thanksgiving arrived six days after the shooting and proved an ordeal. We moved about in a stupor. It was awful.

Three weeks afterward –— unbeknownst to my family — I sat before a U.S. Army sergeant in a Santa Ana recruiting station, the portrait of the vigorous young president still hanging on the wall behind him. I enlisted for JFK. Six weeks later I was on my way to Fort Ord, Calif., for basic training.

But I really didn't sign up for him; I did it for me. I'd been a joke of a college student, and now it was time to get serious. President Kennedy in his inaugural address three years earlier had asked each of us to consider what we could do for our country. This was my response.

The world changed Nov. 22, 1963, and its echo reverberates to this day.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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