Upland Chronicles: Death of a vision and innocence lost
President John F. Kennedy was three years deep into his presidency by November 1963. He symbolized an optimistic future for those of us who graduated college in June 1960. He characterized what many of us envisioned as good for our future and America.
Leadership and the U.S. were synonymous in spirit. Both were described with words like youthful, visionary, energetic, hopeful, an effective work ethic – core values that would continue to grow our economy and yield a promising future. Kennedy projected that much needed hope and optimism. It promised us a completion of our country. Excitement was high, unlike the 50s.
By November 1963, I had served fourteen months of my four-year U.S. Navy duty tour, an Ensign assigned to a Vice Admiral’s staff, Commander of Antisubmarine Warfare Atlantic, in Norfolk, Virginia.
It had already been an eventful past fourteen months. We moved from OCS in Newport, Rhode Island to Norfolk. Virginia in September 1962. It was the Cold War era. In October 1962, after only two months in my Communications Officer Job, the world and we held our breath for thirteen days. On the verge of a potential nuclear war, Kennedy deployed the destroyer USS Joseph P Kennedy from our Cuban blockade to challenge the nuclear missile trawlers.
In April 1963, the nuclear submarine USS Thresher mysteriously disappeared in the North Atlantic. The disappearance triggered a yearlong high alert for those of us in antisubmarine warfare. It remains labeled as the world’s worst submarine disaster. In May 1963, our first son Jeff was born.
When I was ashore and had time off, I served as a substitute teacher in the Norfolk elementary school system. On this particular day, November 22, I was teaching seventh grade math in a local elementary school. We had just convened class. At 1:30 p.m., the school intercom suddenly clicked on and began to broadcast a television news alert. Walter Cronkite described the unfolding horror.
A deafening silence of unbelief filled the room. Children began to sob. Most, if not all, belonged to area active duty Navy households. I was stunned. I remember going to the board and writing – “Listen well and remember — for you are living out a very sad and historic moment in our nation.” School quickly dismissed.
America lost her innocence that day. We all lost our innocence that day. Until then we had full faith and reassurance in our leaders, our institutions and our quality of life. We felt secure, safe and protected. That act tore a hole in the fabric of our society. It was one from which we never quite recovered. Vietnam, racial unrest, more assassinations, Cold War incidents and other upheavals slowly peeled away our faith in things that mattered.
Looking back over those fifty years, Kennedy’s favorite lyric from Camelot was prophetic. “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Sadly, there would never be another Camelot. November 22, 1963 changed us in many ways. We never regained our innocence.
Ron Rader is a commercial real estate advisor with Sperry Van Ness-RM Moore, LLC. Sevierville office. The Pigeon Forge native has a newly released book, “ The Blue Mountains Sing of rivers, old men, trails, and trout.” A 1940s and 50s boyhood and coming of age in the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge and Elkmont. Join him at Wilderness Week in January and learn more about our area’s local heritage and culture of the 1940s and 50s. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org