CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago today, I was a 9th-grader at the brand new Gore Junior High School, a few miles north of Clarksburg. For some of us, the first class after lunch was mechanical drawing, where boys -- and boys only -- learned the now-useless art of hand-drawing building plans. The teacher, Jack Chandler, was no-nonsense, matter-of-fact and humorless. It was not a fun class.
A little after 1:30 p.m., the principal's voice came over the PA system: "All faculty report to the office immediately." Having the faculty summoned away from class was a new experience, and we assumed something was amiss. Mr. Chandler turned to the class and said, "Mr. ReBrook, you're in charge." Whatever that meant.
When he returned, about 10 minutes later, there was no attempt to soften the blow. "Gentlemen," he said, "the president of the United States has been shot and killed. School's letting out early. Go to your lockers, get your books and report to your bus stations." That was how we got the horrible news, with all the subtlety of a head-on collision.
The hallways were filled with students scurrying from one floor to the next. One heard the din of hundreds of moving feet and an occasional sob, but there was very little talking. On the bus ride home, instead of the usual tomfoolery, there was muted conversation. There was an air of shock, grief, fear and disbelief. What had happened? What was happening?
The weather was unseasonably warm for late November. Temperatures in Clarksburg reached the high 70s, with clear blue skies. I was 14 years, six months and 20 days old. Today, I am 64 years, six months and 20 days old. A half-century of my life has evaporated, but I have never forgotten the events of that day.
Later that afternoon, I had to attend to my newspaper route. As I did everyday, I read the paper as I delivered it. The bold, banner headline of the Clarksburg Telegram proclaimed "Gunman Kills Kennedy."
JFK had made a big impression on most of us because he was young, handsome and dashing. He was a war hero with a beautiful wife and two young children. We saw him swim and sail and play touch football with his brothers. He was such a departure from the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower
For my generation, JFK's assassination was our first journey into darkness. Regretfully, it would not be our last. We experienced Vietnam and the anti-war movement; race riots and the brutal struggle for civil rights; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the capitulation of LBJ; the carnage of the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the Watergate hearings; Nixon's resignation and the truth about J. Edgar Hoover. Everything we cherished was tarnished. Everything we trusted was suspect.
In the half century since then, as national and world events unfolded, I grew from a young teenager into an old man. In that time, I have countlessly revisited Nov. 22, 1963, and have concluded that it was the seminal moment in American history when our national innocence was stolen.