RICHARDSON: The end of innocence

November 23, 2013 

I hesitate to add my meager remembrances to the wail of others who have searched the upper levels of their memories about the day, time and minute they learned of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I was 12 years old on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was killed. I don’t think I knew what the word assassination meant at the time. I certainly understand now. Kennedy was the first modern president I consciously remember. History taught me about Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and the 31 other men who had held that high office, but like many, I thought I knew Kennedy.

I was sitting outside eating my sack lunch at George Washington Carver Junior High School when the public address system crackled. The voice announced that the president had been shot and we were supposed to return to class.

As I entered the hallway, teachers were scrambling and crying; some wailing almost uncontrollably. At 12, I had only seen adults cry at the one funeral I had attended.

When I reached my homeroom, my teacher was crying. She told us the president had been shot. A few minutes later, the PA crackled again: The president of the United States was dead.

As most people did, I spent the next few days watching TV and wondering what would come next. When you’re 12 years old, there is no perspective. In 1963, I was a resident of La-La Land. We walked the two miles from home to school and back every day. My school was located in what some called the bad side of Los Angeles. Our only worry was a pesky mutt that took great pleasure in barking at us through the fence as we passed by.

We had no fear. Sure there were ugly things going on somewhere, but not in our rosy part of reality. We wandered endlessly. I knew the Pueblos that spanned 17.5 acres with 390 apartments like the back of my hand. By the time 1963 rolled around, I was a veteran of Nickerson Gardens, a 1,054-unit project in Watts. In fact, I was on my third stint in the Pueblos, having gone to Holmes Avenue Elementary School across the street in kindergarten, third grade and sixth grade. Don’t ask. Long story.

My best friend, George Cantley, and I, used to walk the 2.5 miles from the Pueblos to Roosevelt Park to swim almost every summer day. We’d walk along the railroad tracks in the middle of Long Beach Avenue with not a care in the world.

Life changed quickly for me after Kennedy’s death. We stayed in the Pueblos, but my mother and a friend’s mom decided Carver was getting too rough. They transferred us to Edison Junior High, a mile and a half away in the other direction. No one knew what a school bus was at the time so we walked.

I did not make a good transition at first. I liked Carver and I didn’t give Edison a chance. Don’t tell anyone, but I skipped school -- a lot. Bad move. Madea, my brothers’ name for my mom, found out. It was not good. I’m sure there were scars. No one called DFACS. She didn’t end up in court and I never skipped school again. Case closed.

After the assassination, I started to grow up. I can’t say the murder had anything to do with my entry into adulthood, but I can’t say it didn’t, either. I started to realize the world was a dangerous place. My La-La Land started to disappear.

There was this Southern preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., talking about civil rights -- rights I thought I already had as I blissfully lived in California. I thought the South was a different planet, one I never wanted to visit. That thought was confirmed April 4, 1968, when King was cut down. But, as Dick Gregory said, “Everything is South of the Canadian border.” Two months after King’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy was shot down after winning the California primary. No place was safe -- and that was just the beginning.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet @crichard1020.

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