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The day that changed us all

Between the Lines

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Ask people who are old enough, and they surely can tell you where they were and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when the world suddenly lost its innocence.

But not many can remember that entire day, start to finish, which puts me in a minority. Even before history intervened, that Friday was certain to become an unforgettable moment in this 11-year-old's life.

That was the day my "career" in media officially was to begin. Other kids in Hope, Ark., wanted to be doctors, lawyers, teachers or policemen, but I'd decided in the third grade to be a sportswriter. Later, I undertook my first "editor" position, in charge of the Brookwood News at the same grade school Bill Clinton had attended. (At that point, of course, we had no idea who he was.) As I've mentioned in this space previously, none other than Mike Huckabee was a few years behind me.

In November, an opportunity arose. My uncle was a spotter for radio broadcasts of Hope High School football games, but he was graduating and somebody had to replace him. Why not me? Station manager Haskell Jones, also the play-by-play announcer and a respected community leader, agreed to give me a tryout in the last two games, starting Nov. 22 at Arkadelphia, 50 miles away. The pay would be free dinner. More than enough.

That morning, I laid out my Sunday clothes for the "road trip" and went to school, too excited to think about that day's work in Mary Andrews' class. When she was late returning from lunch, I was busy studying football rosters.

Mrs. Andrews finally walked in, shut the door and said, "I need to tell everyone the news. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas." A classmate, Doug Rogers, lived across the street, so he ran home and brought back a radio. We turned it on and soon heard the terrible bulletin: President Kennedy was dead.

We were about 200 miles away, which seemed farther then, but our family had visited Dallas several times. It felt like the world was ending. Soon, everyone was allowed to go home. After all, just a year before, we had fixed up a "fallout shelter" in a closet during the Cuban missile crisis; perhaps we'd need that shelter now.

But what about the game? Hope was near the end of a great season. Mr. Jones called to say the game was still on, and I was shocked when my parents trusted him enough that they allowed me to go, a sixth-grader, just a few hours after the president had been assassinated. I remember being tearful during the ride to that game, listening to updates on the car radio. We wondered what it meant that a Russian had killed Kennedy.

"Ralph, we'll always remember this day," Mr. Jones said, and he was right.

The game was our escape. Hope won, 20-6, to wrap up the district championship, with the team quarterbacked by my idol, Mack McLarty, who later became Clinton's first White House chief of staff. It was heaven. I was in the press box, I helped Mr. Jones enough to stay on for years to come (later replacing him), and I remember feeling very grown-up. There would be countless games later, even Super Bowls and Olympics, but that was the beginning.

We came home, and I was a scared kid again. All weekend, I was glued to our old black-and-white TV, including Sunday morning when assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby, then Monday for the day-long Kennedy funeral coverage. We watched CBS with Walter Cronkite, who became the nation's comforter. More than anyone else, he convinced us that we'd be all right.

But the story and pain didn't go away, as so many disasters and tragedies soon fade in today's 24/7 world of constant controversy.

Soon thereafter, we took a family trip to Dallas and Dealey Plaza, where the assassination happened. It felt so strange, standing there as a pre-teen, thinking how small the setting was in person, wondering how nobody saw Oswald in time to stop him. At 11, I decided to read every article and book on it. There, on that grassy knoll, I knew that no job could ever be more rewarding than seeing events happen and writing about them.

Fifty years later, that feeling remains the same.

routon@csindy.com

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