Remember where you were when President Kennedy was shot? Remember what you were wearing?
The morning of November 22, 1963, I wore a pair of lime-green culottes fresh from the grips of my mother’s Singer. Miniskirts hadn’t arrived yet, but culottes had.
That morning, because of a cool weather forecast, the first lady wore a pink, wool Chanel suit and her signature pill box hat. But Dallas was hot that afternoon as the motorcade traveled down Elm Street.
This day was the last page of an era. Emily Post’s laws of etiquette may have delivered well-needed structure to a world torn apart by war, but seemed too confining for the new casual “family rooms” popping up in houses across the country.
McCarthyism had died a rightful death, and a commission to the president on equal rights for women unearthed widespread discrimination of women, a major step toward workplace equality.
Democrats and republicans mostly got along, except for Eric, who laughed at the news delivered to our classroom that Friday morning in November.
“Cry-baby democrats!” Eric taunted us fledgling liberals on our sorrowful walk home.
But, even the Cuban Missile Crisis a year earlier that brought the Cold War to a nerve-racking boil and the world to the brink of a nuclear confrontation had cooled.
When the young president told a young nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country,” we listened. When he asked us to get fit by walking 50 miles, we took up hiking. When he challenged college students to help underdeveloped nations, we joined the Peace Corps and volunteered in 139 of them. When he asked us to send a man to the moon, we sent two: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
While her husband prodded us to action, Mrs. Kennedy showed us we could do so with grace. She was America’s most elegant ambassador, stepping off a cruise of India’s Lake Pichola wearing white gloves, pearls and a peach A-line, or sitting down to lunch with the de Gaulles in a yellow Oleg Cassini suit. After Mrs. Kennedy’s CBS “Tour of the White House,” I began punishing my adolescent vocal cords into a sandpaper whisper.
Life was good. The average cost of a new home was $12,500.00. Weekends were punctuated with pogo sticks and pot roast Sundays. Backyard clotheslines carouseled cottons white and pristine. We huddled together to watch Bonanza and Ed Sullivan and lived bleached and starched and clean.
Yet, in spite of all attempts to whitewash the world, the trash still needed to be carried out and the Lee Harvey Oswalds lived among us.
The morning of November 23, still awake, still wearing her pink Chanel suit, now stained with blood, Mrs. Kennedy escorted her husband’s casket into the White House.
My lime-green culottes would not be worn again. A bowl of tomato soup would see to that. Midway into my 24-hour vigil, worried parents delivered the soup to my father’s recliner, where I watched news reports and the late-night test pattern.
Dabbing my eyes and the soup-stained culottes, I waited for Walter Cronkite to make the world right again. What he delivered was a front row seat to Vietnam, more assassinations and the strange metamorphosis of elegance to earthy.