The oldest Boomers become high school students and flock to the beach. Trouble ninety miles off the shore as Dylan sings, The Times They Are A-changing. America’s greatest salesman (TV) is suddenly struck dumb. (“Don’t you know) It’s the End of the World (it ended when I lost you”) is the Top Forty number one hit for seven straight weeks (just before the death of JFK!)
How did we miss the obvious media reflections and not recognize the detour sign in the road dead ahead? Network schedulers brazenly predicted catastrophe: Breaking Point followed The Outer Limits. New soap opera titles, optimistic since JFK took office, suddenly hinted where fate would soon take us: to General Hospital with The Doctors. Even the pop charts supplied us with easy clues as of the impending pain. (Don’t you know it’s) The End of the World? (It ended when I lost you.) topped the charts for seven straight weeks in 1963 and Can’t Get Used to Losing You climbed to #7.
Other thoughts preoccupied young Boomer boys at the time, and the Beach Boys hung ten on those brain waves. Where did kids want to be? Surfing USA. And whom did they want to be there with? Surfer Girl. And how did they want to get there? In a Little Deuce Coupe. The oldest group of Boomers would be seniors in the fall of 1963, and from this point every high school in America was totally ours for the next eighteen years. The Beach Boys urged kids to Be True to Your School. Surfing, girls in bikinis, fast cars and no more War Babies to kick us around. Cool.
Teen Heaven was located just a few miles west of Hollywood, and the camera crews rushed west on Sunset Boulevard to record the scene for posterity. Beach Party swept in as the first wave in a flood of endless summer, celluloid silliness, with eternal virgins like Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello.
But summer isn’t really endless, and pioneer Boomers graduated from high school. Now what? A job? College? The Army? Boomers experienced a reality check, and for the first time in their young lives, fun alone fell short. Could there be more to life?
Folk music predates the record industry. On occasion the sound paid brief visits to the pop charts (i.e. Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio in 1958). Peter, Paul and Mary released Puff the Magic Dragon in 1963, a coming-of-age story of a boy outgrowing his imaginary playmate. (Parents later charged that Puff symbolized marijuana smoke.) Younger Boomers loved Puff and bought the album for the story of the lovable Dragon. First Wavers related to Little Jackie in the song, because they, too, teetered on the edge of adulthood, and they picked up the LP as well. War Babies added the album to their Folk collection because they still owned the genre (at this point). Together we heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover version of Blowing in the Wind. The single became the first real protest song to ever make AM Top 40. P, P & M and Joan Baez invited the 22-year-old Bob Dylan onto stage at the Newport Folk Festival in July to join them in singing his composition. Dylan instantly became a major force in the Folk scene.
Dylan was the first official spokesman for the Boomer generation. With biting wit and youthful impatience, Bob lashed out at the social injustices of the adult world of which Boomers were about to enter. In 1963, Dylan protested against war in Masters of War, With God on Our Side and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and against racial hatred in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Bob even provided us with our first (of many) Boomer Anthem, The Times They Are A-Changin’:
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing.”
Remember the War Baby Anthem, penned by Chuck Berry, back in the Dark Ages: “Hail, hail, Rock & Roll/ Deliver me from days of old”? Teens wanted no part of the adult world with their stupid rules in the ‘50s. Dylan’s message in the Boomer Anthem of 1963 warned, “Look out, Mom and Pop, because we’re going to change your outdated rules.” Did Bob boast with the arrogance of youth, or was he responding to JFK’s “…ask what you can do for your country”?
Always ready to cash in on a hot fad, television jumped on the Folk bandwagon with Hootenanny. Would this new music show bring social protest to network television? Well, with certain restrictions… they didn’t allow songs protesting politics, religion, discrimination, war, class struggle, urban decay or any sponsor’s products. Acne and Communists were fair game. Hootenanny upheld McCarthy’s old blacklist of artists which banned most of the giants of Folk, such as Pete Seegar and the Weavers. The new generation of Folk superstars, including Dylan and Baez, boycotted in response. Thus, the only protest associated with Hootenanny during its brief existence focused on the policies of the show. The program did, however, inspire many Boomers to turn off their TVs in disgust, and go in search of authentic Folk music, which in turn began their habit of buying albums, rather than 45s. (Peter, Paul and Mary had the number two and three selling LPs for 1963.)
The public (and JFK) loved James Bond, and the tube offered us Espionage. Even the title of the new quiz show for the season had a spy flavor to it, in Password.
We soared back into the Space Race in 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The event received a tremendous amount of television coverage and Kennedy promised to take us higher. NASA launched “Telstar 1,” the first communications satellite, and that brought up an interesting question: “Who or what would we be communicating with?” Television responded quickly with an answer… My Favorite Martian. This alien crash-landed on Earth, took the clever alias of “Uncle Martin” and moved in with a newspaper reporter, who, of course, agreed to cover up the biggest news story of the millennium.
Another friendly alien invaded our shores on The Patty Duke Show. The Scottish, look-alike cousin of an American Boomer moved in and Patty’s family couldn’t tell them apart. The girls discovered that teenagers (Boomers) from opposite sides of theAtlantic had more in common with each other than they did with own parents or War Baby siblings. Cathy landed several months prior to the British Invasion in Rock & Roll… one could say that she spearheaded the attack.
What inspired ABC to import teens from Europe? Didn’t we have more than enough of our own? Mr. Novak certainly thought so… his high school on NBC overflowed with problem Boomers. (This program is sometimes confused with another new show on the same network in 1963: Wild Kingdom.) Unlike Our Miss Brooks and Mr. Peepers back in the ‘50s, poor Mr. Novak wasn’t having much fun.
The Fugitive was one of the classic Boomer favorites from the ‘60s. The police wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble of murdering his wife, and then society forced the innocent victim to flee in search of the real killer, the one-armed man. Lt. Philip Gerard pursued him relentlessly for years on end, and Kimble must have thought, “What did I do to deserve this, Lord?” Millions of Boomer boys felt the same way as they registered for the draft on their eighteenth birthday the following year.
The great personal tragedy that drastically altered Richard Kimble’s life struck on September 17, 1963. Barely two months later (on Friday, November 22nd) all of America received an even more devastating blow. As fate would have it, an emotional Walter Cronkite interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns to announce that the President had been shot.
For four painful days our world stopped turning, as regular TV programs (and commercials!) stood aside for breaking news and special reports. Most Americans hurried to a TV and camped out for the duration. We were stunned. How could this happen? Kennedy was so young and strong, so full of life. At first, Americans felt that television owed them a normal happy ending. Anything less than JFK’s full recovery just wouldn’t make sense. We waited. The usual half-hour passed, and we received no news. “Maybe this is a special, one hour pilot,” we thought. We continued to wait… but still no news, and no happy conclusion. This scraped right across the grain of many years of careful brainwashing/ conditioning by the networks. “At least give us some damn commercials as a relief from all this tension.”
For nearly two decades (and the entire lifetime of all Baby Boomers) television had provided Americawith a dependable escape from reality… entertaining, relaxing, reassuring, and never dwelling on unpleasant subjects or challenging the viewer to think. If we didn’t like the program, we simply changed the channel… until now. Every station carried painful updates, and finally the news broke that Kennedy was dead. Television had betrayed us! We had been cheated out of a happy ending. There was no a moral to this story, and the dream machine still gripped us by the throat and wouldn’t let go. The tragedy continued as bits of information and nightmare images came pouring in: the casket, containing the body of JFK, lifted aboard Air Force One, and minutes later, LBJ takes the Presidential oath, as the plane readies for takeoff. A stunned Jackie stands by Lyndon’s side, her raspberry pink outfit splattered with John’s blood. Every few minutes, photographs of the assassination filled the screen, and we relived those fatal few seconds a thousand times. Police trapped and arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallasmovie theatre (the marquee read: To Hell and Back), and soon, TV revealed every last detail of Oswald’s life, except the one we desperately needed to know… why?
Jackie, the model of eloquence and elegance for modern American women, hadn’t changed from her blood-splattered clothes as Bobby met her at Andrews Air Force Base. The TV cameras followed the two, as they accompanied the casket toBethesdaNavalHospital, and then to the White House. Most viewers thought, “Why don’t they leave the poor woman alone?” And yet we all watched with morbid fascination.
The worst was yet to come. The most shocking live coverage in television history burned right through our eyeballs, and branded a permanent image deep in our brains. Millions of Americans watched as NBC cut to the transfer of Oswald to another jail. Plain-clothes officers ushered him through a crowd of about seventy uniformed policemen, when Jack Ruby, a striptease-joint owner, elbowed his way up to Lee Harvey, and shot him in the liver with a .38 revolver. Through the miracle of television, it is quite possible that more people had witnessed this one vicious, cold-blooded murder than had observed all of the prior assassinations in the history of Mankind. For two long days and nights, we pieced together all the information, and tried to make some sense out of this tragedy. Instead of providing an answer, TV offered a live demonstration on how to commit murder. With Oswald, died our last hope of ever understanding the death of JFK.
The average American has absorbed thousands of celluloid killings on the tube, but in each story the bad guy had some sort of warped motive (usually one of the seven deadly sins), and the audience learned a moral lesson from his fatal mistake. What was Ruby’s motive and what did we learn from Oswald’s death? That violence begets violence? That no American is ever really safe, even standing amid an army of policemen? Or, did we finally realize that tragedy, in real life, doesn’t discriminate between good guys and bad guys, and seldom sticks around to offer a moral or an explanation?
That same day… Sunday, November 24th, we watched Jackie and daughter, Caroline, standing by JFK’s flag-draped casket at the White House. No one among friends and staff had the courage to tell the Kennedy children about the death of their father until several hours after the tragedy. Who could tell them why?
On Monday,America observed a long, slow funeral procession from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery. Jacqueline explained the JFK would be buried there, rather than the family plot in Massachusetts because, “John belongs to the country.” Indeed, the young politician had always been a welcome guest in our homes (via TV), more so than any president before or since.
Kennedy’s funeral served as the culmination of the most tragic series of events ever covered by television, and the most unbearable for Americans to watch. We felt as if we had been locked up in a dark dungeon for four days, and then beaten, tortured and brainwashed for no apparent reason. Our captors forced us to watch the same nightmare images over and over again: amateur Super-8 footage of the assassination, blown up, slowed down, and examined frame-by-frame. Ironically, police found the murder weapon among the history texts at the Texas Book Depository. We witnessed Jackie, stunned and splattered with Jack’s blood, standing next to LBJ as he took the oath, and live snuff footage on NBC. And finally, the entire country cried and prayed for the Kennedy children (no President has ever shown such open affection for his kids)… especially when Little John performed a goodbye salute to his father.
We Boomers, and America, lost our innocence in those four days. From that point onward, the most important piece of personal trivia for every First Wave Boomer is not your sign, or how you lost your virginity, but instead, “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?”
For the first and only time in its glorious career, America’s greatest salesman hadn’t made a single pitch for nearly four straight days. Finally on Monday night, a few stations returned to their regularly scheduled programs. It seemed like an eternity since escapism had been offered and America jumped at the opportunity. The intro of the first program on ABC (Outer Limits) assured us that “There is nothing wrong with your TV set. We are controlling transmission… we will control all that you see, and hear (and think)…”