It’s November 22, 2023. Today is the 60th anniversary of one of the most infamous and devastating events in American history. It was an event that I somehow feel just occurred yesterday…even though I’m 35 years old, and so obviously I wasn’t even around then! But whenever people talk about salient “flashbulb” memories (the types of memories that always feel like they were just “yesterday”), this is one of them. 9/11, the Challenger explosion, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the others. In addition to this 60th anniversary, though, another occurred shortly thereafter. Not a grim and bloody and bleak anniversary, but one that shines brightly in the minds of Baby Boomers. An anniversary, that when placed alongside the one that preceded it, proves timelessly that redemption can emerge where, when, and how we least expect it.
“Back… and to the Left”
The story of the JFK assassination requires no preamble. Every angle of it- literally and proverbially- has been covered. And it of course goes without saying that the JFK assassination is on the Mount Rushmore of conspiracy theories (even though the slain president isn’t on the actual version of Mount Rushmore). Communists, mobsters, Al-Qaeda, time-traveling aliens…they all apparently had a hand in his death! But we’ll ignore all those stories for now and just focus on what we know happened.
It was the late fall of 1963. John F. Kennedy and his political advisors were preparing for his next presidential campaign (even though Kennedy himself had not formally announced his candidacy).1 By the end of September 1963, Kennedy had traveled to at least nine states across the south, focusing his energy on conservation efforts and natural resources, as well as education, national security, and world peace.1 A month later he visited Philadelphia and his home city of Boston.1 He held his first major political planning session on November 12, where in which he stressed the importance of winning Texas and Florida.1
President Kennedy and his wife Jackie (who hadn’t made an extended public appearance since the couple lost their baby, Patrick, in August of that year) departed via Air Force One for Texas on November 21.1 Their goal was a two-day, five-city visit in which they’d hopefully unite various Democrats.1 They initially arrived in San Antonio, where their welcoming party- Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Governor John B. Connally, and Senator Ralph W. Yarborough- greeted them.1 The welcoming party accompanied the president and his wife to Brooks Air Force Base for the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center, to Houston (where Kennedy addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens and attended a testimonial dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas), and then finally to Fort Worth.1
The Kennedys spent the night of Thursday November 21 at the Texas Hotel (Fort Worth).1 Morning arrived. The couple awoke to a light drizzle and a crowd of several thousand people standing in their hotel parking lot.1 President Kennedy cordially greeted the crowd, speaking kind words and shaking hands amidst a sea of smiling faces.1 The president went back inside and spoke over breakfast to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.1 “We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom…We will continue to do…our duty, and the people of Texas will be in the lead,” the U.S. president and former Navy commander proclaimed.1 All the energy was positive, wholesome, and inspiring. The day was going great so far!
The presidential party left the hotel and traveled via motorcade to Carswell Air Force Base, where they then boarded a thirteen-minute flight to Dallas.1 The president and his wife arrived at Love Field, and, as soon as they disembarked the plane, shook hands with more warm and welcoming people, all of whom wished the Kennedys nothing but good fortune.1 They even gave the First Lady a bouquet of red roses (which she brought with her to the waiting limousine).1 Connally and his wife, Nellie, joined President Kennedy in his open-top convertible.1 It had stopped raining, so they removed the plastic bubble top from the car.1 Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Claudia Alta “Ladybird,” rode in another vehicle.1
Then, as more crowds of smiling people lined the streets and waved to the Kennedys, President Kennedy’s vehicle turned off Main Street onto Dealey Plaza.1 The time was 12:30 P.M.1 They passed the Texas School Book Depository, and gunfire suddenly rang out across the plaza.1 Confusion was everywhere, until people laid eyes on the horrific scene- John F. Kennedy had been shot in the neck and head, and he slumped over towards his wife (her pink dress stained in his blood).1 Governor Connally had also been shot in the back (Connally, critically wounded, would later recover).1 The car hurried off to Park Memorial Hospital, where, at 1:00 P.M., the 35th U.S. president died.1 Walter Cronkite famously broke into CBS’s “As the World Turns” to announce the dire news.
Kennedy’s entourage brought his body to Love Field and placed it on Air Force One.1 At 2:38 P.M., U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Hughes swore in a grim-faced Lyndon Johnson as U.S. president.1 About an hour earlier, Patrolman J.D. Tippit and other police officers arrested Lee Harvey Oswald (a recent employee of the Texas School Book Depository).1 Two days later, on live television, local nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald with a pistol at point blank range.1 Two hours later, Oswald died at the nearby Parkland Hospital.1
That same day (Sunday November 24), staffers moved Kennedy’s flag-draped casket from the White House to the Capitol on a caisson (which six grey horses pulled).1 The cortege and other ceremonial details were modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s funeral (per Mrs. Kennedy’s request), and weeping crowds of people lined Pennsylvania Avenue.1 When the pallbearers laid his body in the Capitol Rotunda, over 250,000 people filed through and paid their respects to the deceased president.1
Kennedy was finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday November 25.1 Various heads of state and representatives from over 100 countries (as well as untold millions of television viewers) observed the ceremony.1 Mrs. Kennedy and her brothers-in-law- Robert and Edward- lit an eternal flame.1 On the steps of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle (Rhode Island Avenue NW), one indelible photo captured Kennedy’s young son, John F. Kennedy Jr., saluting his father.
John F. Kennedy…one of America’s most renowned dynastic figures. I use “dynastic” in the loose sense of the term. He was from a large, politically influential Irish Catholic family from Boston, but he was also his own man…dutiful, idealistic, and conscientious. The Harvard-educated Massachusetts senator famously encouraged people to “ask not what [their] country can do for [them] but what [they] can do for [their] country” and pushed the United States along in the “space race.” Kennedy went toe-to-toe with Khrushchev in Vienna and expertly navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In his younger years, Kennedy bravely rescued his fellow sailors from their doomed submarine during the (in)famous PT109 disaster, and he was of course married to the one and only Jacqueline Bouvier. The “Camelot” president poignantly waxed philosophical over a viewpoint from Arlington National Cemetery. Atop the hill by Robert E. Lee’s old Arlington House: “I could live here forever!” he said roughly a few weeks before his assassination. Jackie honored his wishes.
While I obviously cannot speak from a personal perspective, I can relay secondhand what the reaction was like when the news of his death broke. It was a reaction not too dissimilar in gravitas from that of 9/11. 9/11 was on a Tuesday. The JFK assassination was on a Friday, and so schools were already letting the students out for the weekend. But…well…what a grim weekend that must have been!
My dad (11 at the time) recalls arriving at his grandmother’s home to a room full of Catholic, bridge-playing women (friends of his grandmother) all sobbing hysterically. My dad had lost his dad at the age of 7, and so he and his large nuclear family at the time were no stranger to grief. But it does speak volumes when the death of a famous individual you don’t personally know can bring you to tears. Consider the type of influence that person must have had upon the world! In the case of my great-grandmother’s bridge-playing friends, it makes sense. Kennedy was America’s first Catholic president. My dad and his family also lived in upstate New York, not far from Massachusetts.
My mom, meanwhile (who lived in Virginia), actually crossed Memorial Bridge (between Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia) when the funeral procession was occurring. It of course was a very hallowed and somber occasion…with one little bright spot! An older gentlemen accidentally stepped on her foot. “I’m sorry, little girl,” he likely said. The man in question– Richard M. Nixon!!
And then…after several months of nationwide despondency and despair, the “sun came out.” Not literally. It was winter. But a new cultural phenomenon was on the horizon. From across the pond came four young gentlemen bursting at the seams with melodic creativity and charisma. Their collective name…
The “British Invasion”
The Beatles…the “Fab Four”. Such timeless musicians and musical innovators! Whatever else transpired in the lives of Baby Boomers, the Beatles too left their mark on them…a bright, creative, melodic, and indelible, soul-nourishing mark! The “flashbulb memories” lighting up “memory lane” shine just as brightly on John and Jackie as they do Paul, Ringo, George, and John, and the various tangled and interweaving highways crisscrossing “memory lane” have distinct auditory labels. They include “Twist and Shout,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Come Together,” “Yesterday,” “All You Need Is Love,” “She Loves You (Yea, Yea, Yea),” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (and many more, of course!).
How did the Beatles phenomenon begin? The English quartet had its roots in Liverpool. Its principal members- John Lennon (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980), Paul McCartney (b. June 18, 1942), George Harrison (February 25, 1943 – November 29, 2001), and Ringo Starr (b. July 7, 1940)- all shared an enthusiasm for American rock and roll.2 Not unlike what was the case for other English contemporaries, the musical culture of African American rhythm and blues drew their attention and admiration.
Lennon (guitarist and singer) and McCartney (bassist and singer) were largely self-taught, and, being the precocious composers that they were, gathered around a cast of accompanists, which, by the end of 1957, included Harrison (lead guitarist) and Stuart Sutcliffe (June 23, 1940 – April 10, 1962), a promising young painter.2 The Beatles dabbled with “skiffle” (a jaunty 1950s-era folk music in Britain) and changed names several times- the “Quarrymen,” the “Silver Beetles,” and, finally, the “Beatles.”2
The band added Pete Best (b. November 24, 1941) as drummer.2 The group joined a small but booming “beat music” scene in Liverpool and then Hamburg.2 In 1961, local Liverpool record store owner Brian Epstein saw the band and became enamored with their potential.2 Epstein then became manager for the Beatles and bombarded the British music scene with letters and their tape recordings.2 They eventually won a contract with Parlophone (an EMI record label group subsidiary), and the classically trained George Martin put his stamp on the band.2 He hired Ringo Starr to replace Pete Best as drummer.2
The band made its own stamp on the world in early 1963, releasing their first album, “Please Please Me” (March 22, 1963).2 They rose to fame in England by producing spirited recordings of original tunes and covering American rock and roll.2 In 1964, the famous “British Invasion” occurred. The quartet made various appearances on American television programs (notably Ed Sullivan), and “Beatlemania” became a thing! The mop-topped artists struck an endearing chord with everyone- older and younger generations alike. Songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You (Yea, Yea, Yea)” became beloved classics. The Beatles released numerous albums, including A Hard Day’s Night, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Band, and Abbey Road. Films such as Help! (1965) and Yellow Submarine (1968), featuring the band, were also released to great popular acclaim.
In his 2008 nonfiction work, Outliers, Writer/journalist Malcolm Gladwell notably asserted that 10,000 hours of practice may have contributed to the Beatles’ phenomenal success. Whatever contributed to it, though, the Beatles became the “cynosure of a generation,” capturing both its innocence and its fury, as well as its hopes and its dreams. They integrated all the major “zeitgeist” elements of the 1960s and 1970s- psychedelics, race relations, the Vietnam War, and the broad sense of isolation and generational division. The only other major 1960s band to match the Beatles in terms of global, generational influence may have been the Rolling Stones.
My dad has his anecdote about the JFK assassination. He also has his anecdote about the Beatles…well, many anecdotes. Probably everyone from that generation does. I’m going to go with my mother’s fondest “Beatles” memory…trudging through frosty air and layers of snow to the nearest drugstore to pick up “Meet the Beatles.” For her and her sisters, I can only imagine it was like going on a long and arduous trek to find the Holy Grail. Too bad they couldn’t have just used Spotify or Pandora…but well, her story in that case wouldn’t have been as interesting! Nor would the very fact that they’d memorized all the bands’ lyrics and played along to all their songs using fireplace equipment as “instruments” and upside-down hatboxes as drum-sets. The limited number of channels for music back then only made the various bands more alluring to listeners.
Historical Repetition, For Better or Worse
Why is it that the “natural course of events” (to paraphrase Jefferson) always repeats itself—not directly or exactly—but always similar in its narrative trajectory? The very way in which society’s patterns regenerate constantly says something deep about us. Warfare is an easy example…as is the tendency for great empires to rise and fall. But even on a smaller scale, the classic patterns still cycle through. The older generation rags on the younger generation for their apparently protracted immaturity. The Baby Boomers say it about Gen-Xers and Millennials who in turn say it about Generation Z. Go back far enough, though, and you’ll find even Cicero and Aristotle criticized “beardless” young men. In the case of this article, the pattern is one of sudden traumatic loss and the “random” sources of redemption that lift them out of their trauma (even if only temporarily).
The 1960s/70s were, as many historians (and people alive at the time) say, a “turbulent period.” There were race riots, a military draft for an unpopular war, untrustworthy governmental figures, and a countercultural movement that, at least for those who opposed or couldn’t understand it, appeared to threaten the entirety of western civilization. And then…there were of course assassinations (the two Kennedys, Dr. King, Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and others). We, in our 2020s era, don’t have assassinations, but we’ve had riots, insurrections, pandemics, and the like.
We also have Barbie, Oppenheimer, and the music of Taylor Swift. Those obviously aren’t the only examples of creative distractions. We could easily choose Hamilton. When the filmed production premiered on Disney+ in July 2020, it provided an oasis of joy for viewers in an otherwise hellish year. Whatever you may think artistically of any of these creative distractions, you cannot deny their meteoric appeal. There is certainly something there… a rubber band effect…an oscillation from the tempestuous depths of despair to the glorious heights of meaningful, hopeful, and wholesome unity. Just look at how jam-packed the arenas were when Taylor Swift came to town…or how quickly the theaters sold out for Gerwin and Nolan’s motion pictures (respectively).
Society was rushing to the surface…striving desperately to breathe fresh air and restore and revitalize that which they had previously lost. Apple Scruffs (Beatles fans) and Swifties are therefore more alike than they are different. Though members of different historical “cycles,” they both ebb and flow the same. Both yearn for the type of redemption that creative outpourings can provide…the types of experiences that can heal even the darkest of traumas! They both yearn for that moment when they can proclaim with both triumph and touching relief: “here comes the sun”!