It was the year 1959 AD. My dad was the only general surgeon in a town of about 10,000 souls located in northwestern Wisconsin studiously picked for his hunting and fishing passions.
He was a very conservative Republican as most if not all doctors were at that era. The “up by your bootstraps” age selected for them. The best government was no government, and in the escalating post war, post-Eisenhower age of prosperity, that seemed attractive.
Credit cards were virtually unknown. Gas was 29.9 cents a gallon, a mortgage on a nice house was a hundred bucks a month, a nice car cost US$2000 and virtually all health care was affordable out of pocket. There was no Medicare or Medicaid.
But the Eisenhower era was closing and a new era of cold war paranoia was emerging with the Presidential election of 1960. The world was becoming a dangerous. I was a sophomore in high school and my only interest was girls and cars, pretty much in that order. My interest in politics was yet to emerge so I was pretty much a disinterested observer.
The two candidates that emerged for 1960 were polar opposites, Richard M. Nixon, a crusading anti-communist from California and Kennedy, a relatively new senator from Massachusetts.
In the first ever TV debates in living black and white, he looked sneaky, dark and foreboding as opposed to the other guy, Kennedy, who brightened up the screen with an articulate vernacular. Even to my naïve eye, Nixon looked positively sinister.
Seemed like a pretty easy choice to me, but there was a problem. Kennedy happened to be a Catholic, a big problem in 1959 American culture. Catholics were very much discriminated against in mainstream America, thought by many to be as much a cult as “Christian Scientists” or “Scientology”.
Catholic. That’s all my bible thumping conservative Baptist mother needed to hear. So I could hear from my bedroom the fervent pleas that Richard Nixon would save us from being ruled by the Pope. But it wasn’t to be. Kennedy was elected by the thinnest of margins and my dad had to pull my mothers head out of the oven.
But in the end, Kennedy went on to become possibly the more revered President in American history, maybe rivaled by Bill Clinton. Interesting that they shared the same vices, but with different media access saturation.
But no matter. Kennedy was perhaps the most intelligent, articulate, funny President our country ever had. If he had shortcomings, all downplayed them. He and his family formed a veritable dynasty that was almost immediately equated with the Camelot legends of King Arthur. It is impossible to overestimate the love this man accumulated by the American public, (never my mother).
It was an idyllic scene unsullied by the eventual cultural revolution of the late 60s and the war in Vietnam. A relatively brief period of quietude and prosperity that was destined to collapse under it’s own weight, but it was extraordinary while it lasted. My only worries were girls and cars.
Cut to November, 1963. I had flunked out of the University of Wisconsin the first time (long story) and had eased into a job as an “orderly” at the local hospital where my dad practiced general surgery as I plotted my next move. The then Director of Nursing was the venerable and formidable Miss Myrtle Worth who watched me closely. After she died the hospital was re-named after “Myrtle Worth Memorial Hospital”. But that’s another story.
Sometime in the early afternoon of 22 November I was perambulating down the hall of one of the hospital floors on my way to some chore, probably carrying a bedpan, when one of the TV sets in the rooms I was passing by suddenly proclaimed a “We interrupt this program”.
This was a little unusual as these kinds of interruptions rarely justified breaking into regular programming. So I stopped and backed up in time to see Chet Huntley (NBC News) solemnly announce that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and no details were available.
Everything in the entire hospital instantly stopped cold. Every nurse, every administrator, every doctor all stopped what they were doing and congregated around the nearest available TV. Shortly thereafter came the famous spectacle of American’s most trusted TV commentator, Walter Cronkite, sadly proclaim with tears in his eyes that the President was dead.
There are no words even in my formidable vocabulary to express to you the emotional and cultural disaster that followed. This was absolutely unprecedented on every level. Camelot by its nature was impenetrable. No one ever thought in their wildest dreams that Camelot was vulnerable. To have it come crashing down was a cultural train wreck of immeasurable consequences. Like an out of control LSD trip, there was n way to process it.
What was to follow was unbroken ground, chronicled minute to minute by the unblinking eye of network TV in living black and white. Everything in the country stopped dead in its tracks, and I mean EVERYTHING. Every radio station carried only continuous funeral dirge music. There was no traffic anywhere. All businesses were closed including gas stations.
Everyone in the country sat ensconced before a TV set watching the funereal progression, the caisson, the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, the lying-in-state under the Rotunda, the unimaginable grief and horror of his wife preserved on.
It was like a nuclear winter until after the funeral when things slowly came back to at least baseline, but never actually back to normal. Even my mother was in tears. We then went on to the further culture shock of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, further illustrating the danger society never dreamed of on November 21, 1963.