1961 and Beyond: Moving from Elation to Disillusion

The sixties were a tumultuous time to be growing up.  As a twelve-year-old I was elated when John F. Kennedy was elected president.  His vision for the country was so exciting to me. That excitement and optimism began to evaporate with the tumultuous and devastating events that came next.

By 1961, my military family had moved from Fort Benning, Georgia to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, or was about to do so. I had been born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so there was something about the state that felt like home to me.  The desert had its own kind of beauty; flowering cacti, wind storms, and blowing tumbleweed.  In White Sands, I particularly remember the  beautiful white sand dunes.  (Picture credit:  Wikimedia)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) became president of the United States in January of 1961. I was twelve years old at that time.  This young, charismatic president had so many dreams for our country. I thought he was wonderful.  I especially loved that he was SO young.

(As an adult, I decided to find out the year of his birth.  I was astounded to discover that he was born the same year as my parents, i.e. 1918. How could that be? He was so young, and my parents were always old. I was mystified.)

In 1961, President Kennedy declared physical fitness to be a national priority. He urged all schools to create fitness programs.

Is this the shapeThe schools took immediate action.  In honor of President Kennedy’s challenge, the high school age students from the army base walked en masse to their school in Las Cruces, 45 miles away.  The younger kids went to school on the base, so we did not participate in that walk; but I remember feeling so excited about it. Our president wanted us to be whole and healthy and he was showing us the way!  I was proud to be an American.

Another memory I have from that time period was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This was a confrontation that occurred between Cuba/Russia and the United States.  That thirteen day  period in October 1962 was apparently the closest we ever came to experiencing a nuclear attack during the Cold War.

Growing up, there were nuclear attack drills during school. When the warning bell sounded, we would all hide under our desks. It is hard to imagine that people thought being under a small school desk would make a difference during a nuclear attack, but they did.

Nuclear attack drill

I don’t remember if we were still doing that kind of drill in 1962, but I know I was afraid. It was clear to me that my family was in danger. My grandparents lived in south Florida which is about as close to Cuba as you can get. And my immediate family all lived at White Sands Missile Range. My father was never allowed to tell anyone, including my mother, what he did at the various places he was stationed, but working at a Missile range was enough reason for me to conclude that our base would be a prime target if Cuba/Russia were to attack.

Over the next years, the elation I had felt about my  country plummeted.  I felt devastated when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Not long after his death, my family visited an uncle in Colorado.  This uncle was very special to me, so my world view took another hit when his reaction to the president’s assassination was, “It should have happened four years earlier.”

Hope returned to me when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy entered the scene; and was dashed again when they too were murdered.  Never again did I have that unquestioning, youthful optimism as when the young JFK became our president.

Written for Writing 101 Assignment #11:  12-Year-Old Memories

10 thoughts on “1961 and Beyond: Moving from Elation to Disillusion

    1. I’m not remembering the frightening part although it certainly must have been. Disheartening and devastated are the words that represent my memory of that time.

      Frightening is the word that comes to me for what is happening here in the U.S. now, with all the random shootings in the schools and on the street. It certainly is an opportunity to learn to live fully today because tomorrow isn’t promised.


      1. Yes, there is lots of violence but then again the health care system in US is difficult to access for those who have no money. We are struggling here with universality meeting up we demands…


  1. Like you, recalling the memories of JFK. MLK, and RFK are painful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your sadness relating to these three great men. What saddens me, today, is the attempt by some politicians to disregard and decimate fairness in equality in this country, this is something that JFK, MLK and RFK supported and advocated for.


  2. Karuna, there is a miniseries/documentary showing on CNN right now called “The Sixties.” Here is the link to the website: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/the-sixties. John and I are watching the episodes. The first one, on TV coming of age, was quite eye opening and funny (Carol Burnett show, Laugh In, Smothers Brothers), but with political/activist undertones. Second episode was more sobering – on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the next one, which we have yet to view, is on JFK’s assassination. I was born in 1966 so didn’t experience it first hand, but I did grow up on the TV shows of that decade. What a sad, disheartening time to live in – the dashing of the hopes and relative calm of the 50s (although there was the cold war and nuclear threat then, too). It ushered in some positive changes, but those are only viewed in hindsight (birth control, women’s movement, environmental awareness…). Thank you for your post!


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