It was a typically warm Friday afternoon in Hollywood, Florida as the students of South Broward High School filed into the bleachers in the football field around 1:30 in the afternoon for a pep rally.
We were released from class early for the pep rally as there was an important Basketball game scheduled that evening with our across town rivals from MacArthur High School and the principal wanted us to be charged up for a win.
South Broward was a pretty large school, even back in 1963, making me, a 15-year old sophomore one of just under 3,000 students’ enrolled sitting in the bleachers.
All of us were excited, classes were let out early for the Pep Rally, we had a weekend of fun facing us since we lived so close to the beach, just over one mile away.
To us, the world was at peace. Castro’s Revolution in Cuba, a little over 200 miles south of us had been over, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 were behind us. Civil Rights demonstrations were popping up on TV occasionally, but they were far north of us and even though we too were segregated then, racial unrest seemed to be for others in the south, not us.
Few people had heard of Vietnam and the Berlin Wall, even though fairly new, was thousands of miles away.
As typical teenagers, we didn’t have a care in the world and were just expecting another weekend of sun and fun in South Florida as we all joked and poked each other in the bleachers as we wondered why the Pep Rally was delayed.
Then Mr. Phares, the Principal came out and instead of leading off the Pep Rally, solemnly informed us all to report immediately to our Home Rooms, not giving us a clue why. So, we emptied the bleachers and headed off to our home rooms.
As we entered our Home Rooms, I couldn’t help but notice that Mrs. Pauline Watkins, my Home Room teacher as well as my World History teacher had been crying. This was her last year teaching as she was retiring at the end of the school year, and even though in her 60’s at the time, she had never seemed emotional to me, so seeing her red, puffy eyes puzzled me, especially given the unexpected announcement of no Pep Rally against our arch rivals.
Mrs. Watkins didn’t say anything other than for us to take our seats. Once seated, she informed us that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas just minutes before and asked for all of us to lower our heads and pray for him, as was allowed back then.
It couldn’t have been a couple minutes later that Mr. Phares announced over the PA system that President Kennedy had died of his wounds and the Basketball game that evening was cancelled.
Mrs. Watkins tears flowed freely and I believe all of us sat there with lumps in our throats at the news as it was just days prior that he had visited Miami, Florida, just 20 miles south.
We learned of assassinations in history, but to have one happen now really threw us all.
Who did it? Our peace was shattered, was it by Castro? The Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev? Were we to end up at war? Were we going to be invaded or see the dreaded nuclear holocaust we grew up in fear of?
No one knew and our young imaginations ran rampant until we got home and our parents were glued to the television sets, all programming on all three networks broadcasting then were reporting news on only the assassination.
That is all that was on and it didn’t take long for reports of the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald to be broadcast, as he was quickly linked to the killing and reports out of both Cuba and the Soviet Union were quick to deny any involvement in the assassination.
The conspiracy theories had not yet surfaced, it was all too fresh and the country was numb, reeling from the shock of it all. There hadn’t been an assassination in 62 years when William McKinley was killed in 1901, when our grandparents were but babies.
Being teenagers, it didn’t take long before we became bored with the repetitive news reports on all stations, all other programming cancelled. Even our favorite AM radio stations were more focused on news of the assassination than playing the top 40 of the time.
The Basketball game was cancelled, but this was South Florida where there seemed to always be something for kids to do, even if just hanging out.
It wasn’t long before my two closest buddies of the time, Dennis and Corky, stopped by, also bored and wanting to get out of the house. We walked around town looking for others, but it was almost eerie, businesses closed, lights turned off all up and down the main street.
Unlike other Friday nights, there were few cars out and about.
We headed to the Arnold Palmer Putter Golf course and it was closed, lights off. Same with the trampoline court next door, lights off and gate locked.
We walked to the Ice Cream Parlor kids often hung out at and it was also closed.
Even the hamburger drive-in, usually hopping on Friday nights, was closed.
We walked around for a couple more hours and finding nothing open, bid each other goodnight and headed off to our individual homes as curfew was coming soon.
While largely taken for granted today, television for 24 hours was very odd to us back then. And even though television broadcast all night through the weekend, all that was on was news of the assassination and Kennedy’s life.
We saw as Air Force One off-loaded his casket into a hearse. We witnessed Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President, Jackie Kennedy standing next to him with her husband’s blood still on her jacket, dress and gloves. We watched as Oswald and his rifle was paraded and scenes of the “sniper’s nest” were broadcast. On Sunday, we saw him also be shot by Jack Ruby, dying shortly after.
By Monday, schools across the country were closed as the hastily assembled funeral was also broadcast, the country laying President Kennedy to rest in Arlington Cemetery and the eternal flame lit, even before it was fully constructed.
Looking back 50 years ago, November 22, 1963, we seemed to have lost our innocence, or at least the perception we had of innocence.
The decade was to become the most turbulent one in history, racked with race riots, more assassinations as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother were also to be gunned down before the decade ended.
Racial unrest exploded across the south and even up north in Chicago and Boston, also in Los Angeles as the Watts riots exploded in 1965.
Vietnam quickly escalated as did the anti-war faction that began opposing not just the war, but those of us sent off to fight it.
College campuses saw a great deal of student unrest that I can’t recall ever hearing of before.
We will never know if it would have been different had Kennedy lived or even if he would have had a second term in office.
We will never know if he would have been able to quell much of the violence we all witnessed or if he would have pulled us out of Vietnam before it became the quagmire it did. All of that will remain idle speculation, each individual imagining for themselves how it would have been.
Did the assassination of Kennedy have anything to do with the way the decade of the 1960’s turned out?
Is there any merit in any of the multitude of conspiracy theories still being debated today, 50 years later?
All of that too will likely never be known, at least not in our lifetimes.
But all I do know, that one weekend, everything seemed to stop in America. We were ripe for invasion if any enemy had a mind to. Luckily, none did.
But something happened then and life as we knew it seemed to be forever changed.
And, I can’t say for the better.